January 23, 2022
Psalm 13

(sing) How long, O Lord how long? VT 691

This is the cry of disorientation. If orientation is the seed that takes root and grows, even flourishes like a tree by the water, as Michelle so beautifully illustrated last week, this cry of despair is disorientation. Today is the middle Sunday of this three part Psalm series on orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Or if you prefer Richard Rohr’s language for this human phenomena: Order, Disorder, Re-order.

Disorientation has become so commonplace since 2020 that by now it might feel like it is “orientation,” like it is the norm. One of the medically documented side effects of covid can be confusion and disorientation but the reality is that the Covid-19 Pandemic has disoriented all of us. Forgetting what day or year it is, running familiar neighborhood stop signs, these are not only side effects of Covid itself. They are part of the grief, anger and disorientation of living through the long, lingering Covid-19 pandemic itself.

Disorienting brain fog has been part of life for many of us the past two years, dare I say, world wide. And in our faith context, disorientation is also part of the spiritual process that we experience with the Psalmist:

(sing) How long O Lord, how long, will you forget me? Am I forsaken?

We do not always allow this cry to God in church. Sometimes we act as if God can only hear our prayers when they are beautiful, when we are grateful, when we pray for other people. A large part of the Christian world these days is all “name it and claim it” as if we can control God. And then there is the prosperity gospel which maintains that God wants us all to have a lot of money – and it makes God really happy when we give our money to the preacher. To be sure, this isn’t what we teach and preach and practice here at Hyattsville Mennonite but it is so pervasive in American culture that I bet even some of young people growing up in this congregation have heard this, have taken it in.

“Name it and Claim it” wasn’t the phrase used when I was a kid but still, there was no place for my angsty, teenage misery or my anger or my faith questions at church. I didn’t know there is religious language to express despair so I poured my soul into the 17th century Italian art song I was learning in voice lessons. I can see my 16 year old self, standing by the lake near my childhood home, singing into the dark night.

(sing) Lasciatemi morire, Lasciatemi morire. (Just let me die already.)

Maybe you can think of a time in your life when you didn’t have words of your own for the turmoil rumbling within. Perhaps you turned to music, or poetry, or visual art or even the Psalms to give some kind of outer expression to the interior disorientation. Because let’s be clear: despair – or disorientation – is not only pandemic related. It is part of the human experience, in every age, in every place. Why else would we have these psalms, these ancient song texts crying out to God, sometimes even blaming God.

The Psalms of disorientation do not protect God from the reality of our imperfect lives. They give voice to the desperation that is all too real. And if we are not convinced that God can take our anger, our questions, our pain we need only remember that Jesus himself cried out one of the psalms of disorientation as he was being executed by the state – My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

We do not have to protect God from our disorientation, as miserable and frustrated as we are, even as desperate and angry as we may be – at God. If Jesus can cry out in despair, can feel forsaken and alone who are we to hide our true selves from God and each other?

(sing) How long O Lord, how long, will you forget me? Am I forsaken? How long will you hide your face?

And… there is another perspective that is important to remember. Susan Dunlap, author of Shelter Theology, says (in an interview for Religion News Service) that she was surprised by the prayers at the services she holds for people who do not have homes to live in, people who live in shelters or on the street. One man said,

“I want to pray for my girlfriend who was shot five times in the head.” (Dunlap says) I was mute. Then I started hearing people saying, “Praise God” and “Thank you, Jesus.” They were grateful she was still alive. Unlike them, I don’t have a well-developed religious repertoire for responding to violence, and they do. My religious circles were reclaiming the importance of lament — “My God, my God, where are you?” Theirs was a turn to gratitude. It focuses you on what is present rather than what is lacking. We know from studies that gratitude is life-sustaining.

Maybe this is part of what we see in the Psalms: that for every “Why God, how long God?” there is a “Thank you God.” We don’t all get to ‘thank you’ at the same pace. It takes more time for some of us than for others. It does take practice. And sometimes it takes a really long time and a whole lot of practice.

(sing) How long O Lord, how long, will you forget us? Are we forsaken? How long will you hide your face? O Lord we are shaken. (VT 691 adapted)

Disorientation can be personal AND we happen to live in a country where disorientation is imposed upon whole communities: recent, and not so recent immigrants, African Americans, indigenous people, disabled people, people in prison, and the list goes on. These communities are treated without respect, are treated violently – physically, emotionally spiritually, systemically. And people cry out together in their “disorientation.” The psalms or Spirituals from the African American tradition are responses to disorientation and they name that trauma honestly.

(sing) Were you there when they crucified My Lord,
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree,
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble,
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb. (VT 329)

Spirituals tell the truth about the experiences of those who sing them. The lament and disorientation is particular – and it is transferable. I recently heard Dr Drew Hart observe that “Were you there” sounds like the voice of one of the women that accompanied Jesus. It is also the voice of the mother of Trayvon Martin, the mother of Emmet Till and family members whose brother was lynched. The horror of the crucifixion is real, and true and the song makes it plain.

Spirituals, like the ancient psalms of disorientation, clearly name misery and abandonment –  and almost always take a turn toward hope. It is as if by naming the reality, being truthful about how unjust and painful life is, the act of just being real, can bring us a little closer toward healing and gratitude. And when we sing these songs of lament and disorientation together, we know that we are not alone, that we are in the company of others who care enough to sing with us, in the company of those who have sung with us for generations.

(sing) Somebody prayed for me, had me on their mind, took the time to pray for me, I’m so glad they prayed, I’m so glad they prayed, I’m so glad they prayed for me. (VT 698)

As moving and beloved as these songs of lament are, those of us who are white must ask ourselves some profound questions when we sing these spirituals. In a country that still seems to believe that power is not to be shared freely across cultures and traditions, that dignity is for some but not for all, what does it mean to sing songs that are born out of the evils of white supremacy?

Is it ever ok for white people to sing the songs that were first sung by enslaved African Americans? A companion question that is now being asked: what does it mean that music of such depth and significance is considered to be in the public domain, meaning no one owns the copyright. The people that wrote these songs were not free but now anyone can sing, can publish these songs, for free, forever. This is in direct contrast to most of the hymns in our hymnal that earn royalties for the composers and text writers, even for their estates after the writers are gone. There are not easy answers to these questions but indeed, a first step is lament. Disorientation and injustice carry on and on and we must lament until we understand the truth.

As we begin to name disorientation, it is important to remember that telling the truth about our own turmoil and the injustice of systems is hard work. It can be exhausting. The psalmist says it this way:

I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. (Psalm 6:6)

My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” (Psalm 42:3)

When we go through times of intense disorientation we must take care of ourselves. Take a nap, go for a walk, dance out the frustration, call a friend, call a professional, do what we need to do to take care of ourselves. It is okay to let go of the “shoulds” and “oughts,” it’s okay to slow down and take time, to remember that we are loved, that we are part of an Infinite Love.

Though the psalms of disorientation, that name our unspoken experiences and vulnerabilities, are part of the biblical canon we have not often sung songs of lament in church. More practically, songs of lament have not appeared in hymnals, at least not so named. But things are changing. The Voices Together hymnal has a number of new songs of lament. We can find them by looking in the index categories of anger, lament and protest – words that do not even appear in the index of our beloved blue 1992 Hymnal: A Worship Book.

I count it as progress that we are able to be more honest in church about our life experiences, about the complexity of pain and sorrow alongside joy. Maybe when we can tell the truth in church about who we are, we can better understand who God is. And then maybe it will be more clear what it means to work with God in this world, being where the pain is and where the joy is, with all the fullness they contain together. Maybe then we can reorient ourselves as we “catch the sweet but far off hymn that hails a new creation.” But that is a sermon for another Sunday.