Today we are given two Psalms that were probably one Psalm when originally written. Psalms 42 and 43. The Psalms are the original prayer book of our faith. Many of them are happy. Many of them are mournful. Or to use the biblical term, they are lamentations. Psalms 42 and 43 are in the category of lamentation.
Though we don't use the word lamentation to describe it, we lament a lot. We lament the loss of loved ones. We lament tragedies, especially the truly mind boggling ones. The oil spill. 9/11. The various natural disasters in our world. As we approach hurricane season, I would imagine that many people in the Gulf are wondering what things will look like when a hurricane brings both water and oil.
Lamentation is not just complaint. It is not belly-aching, or hand-wringing. It comes from the well of genuine human suffering. We see life as it is standing at a great distance from life as we think it should be. It is a sign of our imagination and drive that we wish to be better—to do more—to have more control. And since we can often control the little things, we'd like to think—with more effort—we could control the big things, too. And maybe sometimes we can. Often we can't.
That's probably why we like to shop. Three hundred million varieties of shampoo in Wal-Mart. They all do essentially the same thing, but…you know…some have a conditioner in them. Some claim to be "volumizing." (That's what I need. I need to be volumized.)
Sometime really notice all the choices we get in the store. The presence of variety brings comfort. The store says, "Peace be with you, if you can afford it, you can choose it, you have control over your hair. You have control over your headache…Ibuprophen, Tylenol, Naproxen. Rolaids, Tums, Mylanta, Pepcid, Pepto-Bismol. Peace be with you. You have choices.
But life doesn't always hand you choices. Quite often the most routine day breaks forth into some crazy kind of nonsense that puts us in the doctor's office, or on the phone talking about something we'd rather avoid. And the promise of the that first sip of coffee is broken.
Often, we can take out a sheet of paper and make a list of what has separated us from the day we want to live and life as it has unfolded, but not always. There are days when everything goes exactly to plan. The sun comes up over the mountain. The coffee is sipped. You envision the day you wish to live and it happens exactly as you planned it. BUT. In the midst of it all, something is wrong. And you can't tell why.
What's wrong with you? I don't know. Is it this? No. Is it that? Well, maybe, but no.
And Psalm 42 walks into the room and says, "As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God; when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?"
Something is wrong. What is it? The bills are paid. The laundry is done. The trash was put out in time. All the routines are running according to plan. But there's this thinness to life.
"…the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, "I have no pleasure in them"; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few…the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails and…the dust returns to the earth as it was and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity." (Ecclesiastes 12)
It's a refrain that you hear three times in Psalms 42 and 43. Look at the scripture insert. Verses 6 and 7. 14 and 15. And then Psalm 43: 5 and 6. Do you see the refrain?
"Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? And why are you so disquieted within me? Put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance and my God."
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? And why are you so disquieted within me? What is it? Is it the oil spill? Yes, but no. Is it the politician on TV? Yes, but no. It's a heaviness. It's carrying something around. You can't see it. You don't know what it is, but it's there. It's on you chest, or on your back. You would lay it down in an instant if you could. No one carries things around unless they have to.
The Psalmist says, "I pour out my soul when I think on these things; how I went with the multitude and led them into the house of God." How can I feel so bad…I'm the one they look to. I was the one who made Thanksgiving dinner. I arranged the flowers for church and set the Altar. God…this is not the way I should be feeling. For all my prayers, I should feel better than this. (Pause.)
Some years ago, Karin and I were coming home from visiting her folks in Texas. This was before the children, and we could afford to fly. The flight schedules were all backed up. We were supposed to land at National Airport around 4pm, or something like that, and we got in around midnight. We hadn't had dinner. The airport cafes were closed. And then we find out that our luggage was either coming on the next plane, or the one after that. And sure enough, it was coming on the later flight.
We get a taxi to Karin's sister's house in Alexandria, so we can pick up our car and get some fast food, and rush back to the airport to get our luggage.
The conveyor belt starts up and out come the suitcases. We are standing right at the front. Begging, pleading for our bags to be next. And I will never forget my exasperated wife, half praying, half crying, "Come on God. Give us the luggage. We work for you."
No control, you see? At least we knew what we needed. Luggage, a night's sleep, some food. It's actually quite nice to know what you need. Diagnosis and treatment.
But when the symptoms aren't obvious, you go around from point A to point B silently asking, "Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? And why are you so disquieted within me." (Pause.)
You need to get out of town for a little while. Maybe run up to Winchester or Harrisonburg. That's the problem, see. You've gotten complacent. Same prayers. Same meals. Same scenery. Yes, the Valley is the Garden of Eden. No, there is nowhere on earth prettier than right here, but you need to get out for a little while. Everyone needs a break.
Listen to a little music in the car. Drive around. Sit down to lunch at a restaurant and order something you've never had. That looks good. Give me one of those. The plate comes out. You look over at the other table and there sits someone you don't know. Nice looking. He's having lunch with…who could that be? Is that someone from the office. He seems happy. "Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?" (Pause.)
"Send out your light and your truth,"—he's getting desperate now. "Send out your light and your truth," says the Psalmist, "that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling." You know how to get to church. You put the car in gear and it will drive itself there. You know what it will smell like in church. You know which pew you will sit in. The stained-glass windows will look the same, the lighting is the same, the Prayer Book lies down with the Hymnal, and as your mind shifts over to the setting for "prayer" up comes the sick list: Dabney, Vera, Rachel, Tony. The names and faces pass through your mind. Once the obligatory prayers have registered, we fold up the sick list, and there we sit.
It could be in church; it could be at home. It could be anywhere at all; but now is the time to pray. We start twisting the knobs, trying to get a signal. Twist a little to the left and we get some childhood memories, twist to the right and we get a the shopping list. God must be broadcasting somewhere on the dial. "Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?"
Prayer used to be easier. God used to drop in on his way home from work in the evening. When I was a kid, he smoked a pipe. I remember the smell of his tobacco pouch and the way he would cradle the bowl of the pipe in his hand as he tamped the shredded tobacco down. He would light it with a few quick drags, singeing the top of the pipe, and the rich smell of cherry flavored tobacco would fill the air. The incense was burning. It was time for telling God the news of the day.
And up from the wisps of tobacco smoke, God received the glory of our laughter and we didn't care about the things we couldn't control. Good things had happened. Bad things had happened. God would smile and talk. We didn't know what he was saying, yet his voice was calm and sweet, and we watched the incense of his pipe rise as an evening sacrifice. (Pause.)
But now we know the dangers of smoking. The incense no longer burns. The list of woes grows larger than the list of joyful surprises. The calm indifference of the back porch is no longer the place of stories.
The lawn is not the place of a "thousand twangling instruments," "sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not" —now it is grass to be mowed. Back then you knew what a new pencil eraser smelled like. What the floor tasted like. The most important thing in the kitchen was the cookie jar, and it winked at you every time you entered the room. When the floor had been mopped, you knew how to get from one side to the other without ever touching the floor. It was magic.
Magic was everywhere. How did the stove work? How did the refrigerator work? Magic. The clothes in the laundry hamper magically appeared on the line outside the window, and then, magically, after bath time, there they were in the drawer.
God moved in mysterious ways. Santa Claus. The Easter bunny. The tooth fairy. It was so easy to pray. It rhymed! "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed that I lay on." "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." "I see the moon, and the moon sees me, the moon sees the somebody I'd like to see. So God bless the moon, and God bless me, and God bless the somebody I'd like to see."
We are meant to grow up. We are meant to learn. There comes the day when mommy and daddy becomes mom and dad, and the prayers stop rhyming. Johnson's baby shampoo gives way to volumizing or non-volumizing. And it should be, I suppose.
"Why are you so full of heaviness…" And the Psalmist responds with his own pep talk, "Put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance and my God."
I have no idea why the spirit languishes…why the grasshopper drags itself along…why life pushes us forward whether we are ready to go or not. But I think we all feel it from time to time, and I think God cares for us very tenderly in those times, even if we don't feel it as much as we would like.
Perhaps those times can be softened a bit by remembering that we are never truly alone. The training wheels come off—they may have come off years and years ago—but daddy's still there. His hand isn't on the seat like it used to be, but he's still there, and I will yet give thanks to him. I will still trust, and I will still praise him.
Even when the lights go out at night, and the darkness is heavier than the covers, he is still there. And he will never leave us to face our perils alone. Some days it's easy and some days it's hard, but blessed be God. Blessed be his holy Name. Blessed be God.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.