How Long, O Lord?
Pentecost II; June 18, 2017
The guest preacher told me a story and asked, "Can I use this in my sermon?" I thought about it and about the congregation I was serving at the time and told him that I thought he should not. So he didn't. I'm going to tell you, but I'm changing the offending word. A woman talked to her pastor about the awful things happening in her life and asked, "How do I pray?" The pastor said, "Say to God whatever expresses the way you feel." So she went to a corner of the chapel and knelt, bowed her head and said, "Excrement! Excrement! Excrement!"
You get the picture. The word she used expressed the way she felt. The poet who wrote Psalm 13 said – four times – "How long?" What do you feel in those words? "How long?" Weariness? How long will this last? How long must I suffer? When will things begin to feel better? Anger? How long will you ignore my prayers? How long will you treat me as a yoyo? Sadness? How long until I begin to feel better? How long until I see justice? Maybe all three. Life is rarely simply one thing at a time.
Psalm 13 is a short, beautiful example of a type of psalm called a "lament." There are two forms of laments in the Book of Psalms: individual laments and community laments. The crucial difference is obvious: in one type the trouble is happening to me and in the other type the trouble is happening to us. Both have features in common, and you see all these features in Psalm 13:
The complaint: How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
And have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
A prayer for help: Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
And my enemy will say, "I have prevailed";
My foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
A confession of faith: But I trusted in your steadfast love;
My heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
An expression of praise: I will sing to the LORD,
Because he has dealt bountifully with me.
So, two things to call to your attention that I hope will help you in your spiritual life. The first: the poet is honest and is specific. At those times that your cry to God is not "Hallelujah!" but "Excrement!" I beg you to be honest and specific. Sometimes other people don't want to hear your problems. Sometimes those other people are your problem. God is always willing to hear it.
"How long, O LORD?" expresses pretty well what makes me weary, angry, and sad these days. Right now I could use a community lament; my own life is going well, but I want to say to God, "How long, O LORD? Will you forget us forever?" for the Church, for our nation, and for our world. Let's be honest this Father's Day: if God is our Father, then God seems to be somewhat negligent of God's children right now. Where was God as Grenfell Tower burned in London? What was God doing when James Hodgkinson started shooting at lawmakers practicing for a baseball game in Alexandria? How long will God permit nations throughout the world to persecute the Church of Christ? And many of us have wondered what God was doing as legislatures across the country have undone so much of what has been gained over the years… It was interesting to learn this week that the United States ranks thirty-sixth in a study of the best and worst places to be a child, due largely to budget cuts to programs for children. We are ahead of Brunei and Algeria by about the same amount that we are behind Slovenia and South Korea.
How long, O Lord? How long will power and wealth be more important than health and well-being? The poet spoke of enemies: I have no doubt that there were real enemies who were enjoying the poet's hard times. You and I do well to remember who our real enemy is: the Devil. How else does the beautiful ideal of jihad be corrupted? Jihad is the struggle of the soul, the struggle of the person to become more holy, more compassionate, more faithful. Yet ideologues have corrupted it to mean the struggle to kill anyone who disagrees with their ideology. How else does a member of a political party think it's okay to open fire on elected members of the opposite party? I don't care whether you believe in a literal devil or not, you can hardly claim there is no force of evil abroad in our world, seeking to destroy human well-being. And that is the enemy. People of other religions are not the enemy. The other political party is not the enemy. Other nations are not the enemy. The Devil is the enemy. "How long shall (our) enemy be exalted over (us)?"
Some of you are waiting for lightning to strike where I'm standing for talking like this. You should read your Bible more. It is full of this sort of talk, and not only in the Psalms. One of the many things the Bible tries to teach us is to be honest in our relationship with God, honest about our experience, honest about our needs, honest about our feelings. There is no "Hallelujah!" without "Excrement!" They both happen in every relationship.
Which takes me to the other point I need to make: the poet who wrote Psalm 13 has a strong relationship with God. The poet cries out, "Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!" "My God." I read years ago about a Catholic bishop who had a particular practice with any priest in his diocese who was going to work with Hispanic people. He sent the priest to Puerto Rico for a while and told him to stay there until he learned to say, "Dios mío." "My God." Not simply, "God," but "my God." The priest needed to learn to say it and to mean it.
A colleague and I had an ongoing dispute about the phrase, "my church." She is a pastor, and she says she won't refer to the church she is serving as "my church," because she doesn't own the church and she isn't in charge of the church. She's right about that. But I say "my church" when I'm referring to you, but I don't mean to imply that I own the church or that I'm in charge. "My" has multiple uses: it can mean ownership, as in "my car" or "my house." It can also mean relationship, as in "my dad" or "my friend."
When a person of faith says, "my God," it is selfish and aggressive when it means ownership. "My God is better than your god." I could riff for quite a while on ways people say that without saying it. Saying "my God" to mean ownership is simply mean and hostile. But, "Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!" is the heart crying out to someone in a relationship of faithfulness and love.
The other clue to the poet's relationship is in the last few lines of the psalm: the poet reflects on God's dealings over time, and remembers that God has been bountiful and that God's love is steadfast. There have been times, O Lord, that my cry to you has been "Hallelujah!" Right now my cry is, "How long?" But I know that again I will cry, "Hallelujah!"
How is your relationship with God? Should you talk about it with one of your pastors? Have you spent enough time with God that you can say, "My God" and mean it? Whether your cry is "Hallelujah!" or "Excrement!" or "How long, O Lord?" those who can say, "My God" have trusted in the Lord's steadfast love. Though now we cry, "How long?" we will sing to the LORD, who has dealt bountifully with us.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska http://www.savethechildren.org/atf/cf/%7B9def2ebe-10ae-432c-9bd0-df91d2eba74a%7D/SAVETHECHILDREN_ENDOFCHILDHOOD_INDEX_2017_EASTAFRICA%20EDITION_LOWRES.PDF