Psalm 6 – Independence Day Celebration or Mourning?

O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
    or discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
    O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
My soul also is struck with terror,
    while you, O Lord—how long?

Turn, O Lord, save my life;
    deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
    in Sheol who can give you praise?

I am weary with my moaning;
    every night I flood my bed with tears;
    I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief;
    they grow weak because of all my foes.

Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
    for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
The Lord has heard my supplication;
    the Lord accepts my prayer.
All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
    they shall turn back and in a moment be put to shame. (New Revised Standard Version)

Methinks we Americans, especially on this our national Independence Day, must remember that this has not always been, nor currently is, a day of celebration for a sizable chunk of people in the United States.

Now before you begin offering some mental pushback that I am pouring cold water on a time-honored holiday, or begin believing I’m not a true patriot, I will simply point out that not only is today’s psalm lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary a lament, but also that I’m a guy with two academic degrees in American history.

If we only look at Independence Day from the perspective of white Northern European heritage persons, then it will seem that, speaking like this, I am not grateful for the blessings of being in this incredible country of my birth and the place I’ve lived my entire life.

But I am not looking from that angle today. I choose to acknowledge that on this day, every year for the past 246 years, today’s psalm has been the lived experience and expression of others who looked to the heavens and asked, “How long, O Lord!?”

A true people of compassion are able to suffer with those who suffer. The people of God really ought to be at the forefront of exhibiting empathy and standing in solidarity with suffering folk.

A patriot is one who acknowledges and affirms all it’s citizens, and not only the ones who look like me, talk like me, and act like me. After all, the original documents of the United States made room for this to be so. Empathy, compassion, and solidarity are intentionally built into our nation’s grand experiment of democracy and government.

“We the people of the Unites States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Preamble of the United States Constitution

The very fact that the previous quotation is true for some, and not for everyone, is a telling testament to the reality that we need to keep striving to live into our heritage as Americans and ensure that welfare for the common good of all citizens is continually sought, even if done so imperfectly.

Grieving, tears, and lament was the response of the former slave Frederick Douglass.

“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your [white] fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me [a black man]. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” (An oration on July 4, 1852)

Mourning and weeping was and continues to be the experience of many Native American peoples.

“While the United States and its settlers claimed its independence from Great Britain, this came at a cost of others, including this land’s Indigenous Peoples that were stolen from their own homelands. This patriotic holiday is nothing to celebrate because freedom cannot come at the cost of another’s freedom. America’s Independence Day is a celebration of imperialism, genocide, and American exceptionalism, and there is no pride in genocide.”

Daisee Francour (Oneida Nation of Wisconsin)

We cannot change history, but we can work towards a better future where all of our rights are respected and we all experience freedom and independence equally. Those with non-European ancestry who today in our nation experience racism and anti-ethnic aggression need to be acknowledged and affirmed as Americans with equal standing and an equal voice alongside the white population.

So, I would argue that both celebration and weeping ought to occur on this day. We should weep for the dreams and lives of indigenous peoples who were destroyed through westward expansion, and even today experience the ongoing effects of cultural genocide.

We ought to acknowledge not only our nation’s blessings, but also our curses which are still seen in exploiting others through envy, greed, sloth, pride, lust, and gluttony.

We, the people of the United States of America, ought to actively seek to live in more simple and less harmful ways. We should offer our voices, not in violent speech and language, but with creative and healing words.

On this American Independence Day, the Church should reaffirm her allegiance and citizenship to Christ and God’s Kingdom and renounce any nationalistic, economic, ethnic, and political divisions which are contrary to the words and ways of Jesus.

All of the citizens of the earth should seek to embrace non-violent, self-sacrificial love on behalf of everyone. Today is an opportunity to affirm that Christ is the Friend of all people, not just some.

No one ought to be wasting away in their grief and languishing in their tears when we have the means to acknowledge their suffering and to do something about it.

Our Father who is in heaven,

uphold the holiness of your name.

Bring in your kingdom

so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven.

Give us the bread we need for today.

Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you,

just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.

And don’t lead us into temptation,

but rescue us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9-13, CEB)

Psalm 30 – Mourning Has Turned to Joy

I will exalt you, Lord, for you rescued me.
    You refused to let my enemies triumph over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
    and you restored my health.
You brought me up from the grave, O Lord.
    You kept me from falling into the pit of death.

Sing to the Lord, all you godly ones!
    Praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment,
    but his favor lasts a lifetime!
Weeping may last through the night,
    but joy comes with the morning.

When I was prosperous, I said,
    “Nothing can stop me now!”
Your favor, O Lord, made me as secure as a mountain.
    Then you turned away from me, and I was shattered.

I cried out to you, O Lord.
    I begged the Lord for mercy, saying,
“What will you gain if I die,
    if I sink into the grave?
Can my dust praise you?
    Can it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear me, Lord, and have mercy on me.
    Help me, O Lord.”

You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.
    You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy,
that I might sing praises to you and not be silent.
    O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever! (New Living Translation)

Life is not only full of the tears which give way to joy; a great deal of life is learning to move through our grief and transform the pain into something beautiful.

Hard circumstances make us either better or bitter.

The psalmist, King David, had his share of adversity, difficulty, and distress. The youngest of seven sons, David was something like the runt of the litter. He was given the grunt work that nobody else wanted to do, since he was the lowest person in the household.

So, off to the fields he went, shepherding the sheep, dealing with hot days and cold nights, fighting off predators, and keeping the sheep healthy and safe. Yet out there where no one was looking, God was watching. And the Lord was developing within David the very qualities needed to one day rule over all Israel and Judah.

Even in-between becoming a member of the king’s court and becoming king himself, David’s life was mostly characterized by misunderstanding and being victimized. In other words, David had intimate first-hand experience of terrible sorrow, buckets of tears, and stress-filled anxiety. Through it all, he did not become bitter. Instead, David learned to transform his mourning to joy.

Many persons, having experienced the sort of things David of old did, come through their difficulties and adversity with a hard heart. They end up hurting people, just like they were hurt. Their verbal and physical acts of violence betray their inability to turn pain into something useful.

So, what makes the difference between those who experience the same sorts of painful events, yet go in the different directions of caring or harming?

I believe the twentieth-century Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, understood the true source of violence and non-violence…

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Merton rightly discerned that the false self (the self we project to others and try to maintain as real) is in fact the source of violence – specifically, the false self’s need to gratify impulses for power and control, affection and esteem, security and safety, at all costs.

However, we do not find ourselves in those ways. The cultivation of solitude, silence, and contemplation are non-violent practices which organically produce non-violent ways of being in the world. Those were the very practices which characterized David’s early life as a shepherd.

It’s what we do when no one is watching, and nobody is around, that makes the difference. Our way of being in the world is determined by the way we are with ourselves when we are alone.

How you are, matters.

“If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”

Richard Rohr

We need to be present to our pain, to pay attention to it. Our hurts don’t simply vanish if we ignore them, try to go around them, or seek quick fixes to them. The pain is still there, and over time, becomes gangrene of the soul.

Instead, we must dare to go to the unexplored territory of the inner person, to confront and contend with our inner turmoil and be open to hearing from it.

“The endurance of darkness is the preparation for great light.”

St. John of the Cross

Today, like every day, we have the opportunity and even responsibility to bring our whole selves, pain included, to the relationships we have, the work we do, and everywhere we go. The world not only needs our skills and abilities; it needs us.

The path to joy isn’t through perfect circumstances and having all our wants satisfied; joy comes after a season of darkness with all it’s sobbing, tears, and wondering. As we become more comfortable with the shadowy places of our lives, the more open we become to transforming our pain to a beauty which blesses the world.

O God, you are my God, and I will praise you, whether at night’s inky blackness, or in the day’s bright sunshine of happiness. As I endure each difficult situation, help me to see it’s transformative power and it’s potential to make me a better and more godly person, through Jesus Christ my Lord, in the enablement of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 51:1-17 – Ash Wednesday

Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
    Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!
Wash me completely clean of my guilt;
    purify me from my sin!
Because I know my wrongdoings,
    my sin is always right in front of me.
I’ve sinned against you—you alone.
    I’ve committed evil in your sight.
That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict,
    completely correct when you issue your judgment.
Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin,
    from the moment my mother conceived me.
And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
    you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.

Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;
    wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and celebration again;
    let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.
Hide your face from my sins;
    wipe away all my guilty deeds!
Create a clean heart for me, God;
    put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
    please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
Return the joy of your salvation to me
    and sustain me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways,
    and sinners will come back to you.

Deliver me from violence, God, God of my salvation,
    so that my tongue can sing of your righteousness.
Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
You don’t want sacrifices.
    If I gave an entirely burned offering,
    you wouldn’t be pleased.
A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God.
    You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed. (Common English Bible)

Ash Wednesday is an ancient holy day on the Church Calendar. It marks the beginning of the season of Lent—a time of penitence, discipline, and renewal.

We are reminded of our mortality, we confess our sins, and we experience forgiveness through Christ’s death and resurrection. The “imposition of ashes” is a central part of Ash Wednesday observances, whereby the penitent worshiper receives ashes on the forehead in the sign of the cross.

In Holy Scripture, ashes serve both as a symbol of mortality and as a sign of mourning and repentance. But neither sin nor death is the final word. So, we also have confidence and gratitude that Christ has conquered death, and nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Jesus, our Lord.

Today, on this Ash Wednesday, the appropriate posture of the devout Christian is prayer. Specifically, prayers of confession of our great and many sins, shortcomings, and moral failures. 

This might sound negative and a major downer. Yet, to not look evil square in the face and call it out for what it is, is at best denial, and at the worst allowing a bitter seed of unforgiveness to gestate in the depths of your soul. 

It seems to me there is no better way to confront the darkness within than with using the ancient prayer book of the Old Testament Psalms. I encourage you to pray Psalm 51 out loud and slowly, with a generous amount of emotional flavor – even, and especially, if you don’t feel like it. 

Pray the ancient psalm over more than once, and perhaps several times punctuated throughout the day today. In doing so, you will be joining the faithful across this entire big world who today offer to God a prayer of subversion against the blackness on this earth.

Holy God, as the season now turns to Lent, we pray that you will guide us in the days ahead.  As we journey with Jesus, give us an abiding sense of your presence, an unguarded sense of ourselves, and an awareness of the needs of this world.

Loving God, as we are marked with the ashes of earth, we bring before you the frailty of our very human lives:  our fragile health; the uncertainty of our plans; the changing nature of our relationships. Grant us patience in suffering and healing from our ills. Give us, in equal measure, humility and hope in our pursuits. Bind us in love that is constant, yet able to change according to the needs and circumstances before us.

Just God, you call us to action; to bring freedom to the oppressed; to care for those in need; to lift the burdens of others. We ask you to increase our courage and our will to work for the peace you envision and desire. We pray for an end to warfare and conflict, accepting our call to be peacemakers. We pray for an end to hunger and homelessness, knowing we are called to share with others and show hospitality. We pray for an end to false righteousness, evil speech, and shallow faith in our lives, in the church, in our public life, and among all the nations.

Eternal God, we pray your kingdom will come in fullness; that what is perishable will be raised imperishable; that death itself will be swallowed up in victory; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Acts 20:17-38 – A Ministry of Tears

Paul sent a message for the church leaders at Ephesus to come and meet with him. When they got there, he said:

You know everything I did during the time I was with you when I first came to Asia. Some of the Jews plotted against me and caused me a lot of sorrow and trouble. But I served the Lord and was humble. When I preached in public or taught in your homes, I didn’t hold back from telling anything that would help you. I told Jews and Gentiles to turn to God and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

I don’t know what will happen to me in Jerusalem, but I must obey God’s Spirit and go there.In every city I visit, I am told by the Holy Spirit that I will be put in jail and will be in trouble in Jerusalem. But I don’t care what happens to me, as long as I finish the work that the Lord Jesus gave me to do. And that work is to tell the good news about God’s great kindness.

I have gone from place to place, preaching to you about God’s kingdom, but now I know that none of you will ever see me again. I tell you today that I am no longer responsible for any of you! I have told you everything God wants you to know. Look after yourselves and everyone the Holy Spirit has placed in your care. Be like shepherds to God’s church. It is the flock that he bought with the blood of his own Son.

I know that after I am gone, others will come like fierce wolves to attack you. Some of your own people will tell lies to win over the Lord’s followers. Be on your guard! Remember how day and night for three years I kept warning you with tears in my eyes.

I now place you in God’s care. Remember the message about his great kindness! This message can help you and give you what belongs to you as God’s people. I have never wanted anyone’s money or clothes. You know how I have worked with my own hands to make a living for myself and my friends. By everything I did, I showed how you should work to help everyone who is weak. Remember that our Lord Jesus said, “More blessings come from giving than from receiving.”

After Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. Everyone cried and hugged and kissed him. They were especially sad because Paul had told them, “You will never see me again.” (Contemporary English Version)

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”

Washington Irving

Apparently, real men do cry. 

When the manly Apostle Paul was headed for Jerusalem, he stopped in Ephesus on his way. Paul preached for hours to the church he had established there, and everyone understood this just might the last time they all saw each other. Paul remembered he had served the Lord among them and admonished each person with tears in his eyes. 

And when Paul departed from Ephesus for the last time, there were a great many tears both with him and the congregation.

Paul was faithful to declare all the will of God to the church. Whatever the people needed, he worked diligently to spiritually support them. The Ephesian church needed a good cry, a sort of emotional baptism to help cleanse and prepare them for life apart from their beloved founder.

So, Paul, never one to be afraid of his emotions, allowed his own tears to flow freely. Those tears were not ancillary to his ministry; they were an integral part of it.

One of the unfortunate philosophical hangovers of the Enlightenment project, with its sheer intellectual rationalism, is that over the past several centuries, we in the West have tended to view ourselves as brains on a stick. 

The thinking goes that if we clearly and objectively educate people, provide them the correct information, teach them sound doctrine and right behavior, that they will have everything they need and do the right thing. 

When you get to heaven, try telling that to Paul, and see where it gets you.

Any Christian tradition which excludes the vital element of emotions is a truncated spirituality. Even more, I would argue it is downright heretical. If we are devoted to emulating and following our Lord, then just as he wept, we will weep, too.

People everywhere desperately need some tears in order to connect with Jesus Christ. 

Perhaps we all need a good old fashioned cry today.

Weep over lost persons locked in a prison of guilt and shame who need deliverance and new life.  

Shed some tears over believers floundering in their faith, mistakenly believing they must keep a stiff upper lip and eschew their grief and sadness.

Bawl and let your eyes be red in missing those friends and mentors who have died in faith, leaving a massive spiritual hole in our hearts.

And cry over a broken world that has not experienced the grace of God. Indeed, slow down enough to feel the pain, sit with your emotions, and find the mercy of God.

Gracious God, you have created us all in your image and likeness. Help us so to connect with your own emotional constellation that none of us will be stifled in faith but will go on to maturity in Christ with your whole church. Amen.