Sunday, September 20, 2009

16 Pentecost

September 20, 2009

Psalm 54

Now, for those of you who know me, I know this is very hard to believe, so bear with me. I—sweet, humble Father Jamie—have a bit of an ego. I know, it’s hard to wrap your minds around. I know that you can’t imagine that I—of all people—would have an ago. But I do. In fact, we all do.

The center of our universe is none other than our very own selves. As much as we try to ignore that fact or deny it—it’s true. And as a result, we often find that our egos sometimes take a beating. We often find ourselves threatened or jealous or angry at someone simply because they are who they are. Or, worse yet, we oftentimes find people who, for some reason we might not fully understand, simply don’t like us. In those moments when our egos take a licking, we find ourselves lashing out at them. Sometimes we are petty to them. Sometimes we mean to them. Sometimes we are do cruel things to them, because we think it will make our egos feel better.

Sometimes, this lashing out at our enemies happens right in the Bible. Occasionally, in the Psalms, we do come across language that we might find uncomfortable. Often in the Lectionary of the Church—the assigned readings from the Bible that we share each Sunday morning—some of those phrases that some people might find offensive are found bracketed. In those cases, we have the option to not use such language. The language, after all, is violent often. It is not the language good Christian people should use. After all, we’ve been taught to pray for our enemies. We been taught to love our enemies. We have been taught that if we have enemies who strike at us, we should turn the other cheek. But today, we get his little tidbit:

“render evil to those who spy on me;
in your faithfulness destroy them.”

This verse is not bracketed—it’s actually fairly minor in tone compared to some of the bracketed verses in other Psalms. But for many us, as we sing it, it might give us pause. This is not the kind of prayer we have been taught to pray. As I said, we have been taught to pray for our enemies, not pray against them. None of us would ever even think of praying to God to destroy anyone. It’s just not the kind of prayers good, God-fearing pray.

But the fact is, although we find it hard to admit at times, we do actually think and feel this way. Even if we might not actually say it, we sometimes secretly wish the worse for those people who have wronged us in whatever way. I like to think that, rather than this being negative or wrong, that we should, in fact, be honest about it. We sometimes get angry at people. We sometimes don’t like people. And sometimes we might just hate people. It’s a fact of life—not one wants to readily admit to, but it is there. Sometimes it is hard to love our enemies. Sometimes it is probably the hardest thing in the world to pray for people who have hurt us or wronged us.

So, what do we do in those moments when we can’t pray for our enemies—when we can’t forgive? Well, most of us just simply close up. We put up a wall and we swallow that anger and we let it fester inside us. Especially those of us who come from good Scandinavian stock. We simply don’t wail and complain about our anger or our losses. We tend to deny it.

But what about that anger in relationship to God? Well, again, we probably don’t recognize our anger before God nor do we bring it before God. And that is where Psalms of this sort come in. It is in those moments when we don’t bring our anger and our frustration before God, that we need those verses like the one we encounter in today’s Psalm. When we look at those poets who wrote this Psalm—when we recognize her or him as a Jew in a time of war or famine—we realize that for the poet—for the Psalmist—it was natural to bring everything before God. It didn’t matter what it was. And I think this is the best lesson we can learn from the Psalmist than anything else.

We can not hide that “shadow side” of ourselves from God. And we all have one. We all have that dark side of ourselves—that part of ourselves that dwells on the fringes—in the dark recesses of our lives and our existence. It is that dark self that makes itself known when our egos are wronged. This is the self maybe no one else has ever seen—not even our spouse or partner. Maybe it is a side of ourselves we have not even acknowledged to ourselves. It is this part of ourselves that fosters anger and pride and lust. It is this side of ourselves that may be secretly violent or mean or gossipy. It is the side ourselves that fosters what St. Benedict calls in his Rule, “grumbling.”

Sometimes it will never make an appearance. It stays in the shadows and lingers there. Sometimes it actually does make itself known. Sometimes it comes plowing into our lives when we neither expect it nor want it. But as much we try to deny it or ignore it or hide it, the fact is; we can never hide it from God.

It’s incredible really when you think about it: that God, who knows even that shadow side of us—that side of us we might not even fully know ourselves—God who knows us even that completely still loves us and is with us.

Few of us lay that shadow self before God. But the Psalmist does, in fact bring it out before God. The Psalmist wails and complains to God and lays bare that shadow side of him or herself. The Psalmist is blatantly honest before God.

The fact is: sometimes we do secretly wish bad things on our enemies. Sometimes we do wish God would render evil on those who are evil to us. Sometimes we do hope that God will completely wipe away those people who hurt us form our lives. Sometimes we do grumble and complain about others. It is in those moments, that it is all right to pray to God in such a way. It is all right to wish bad things on our enemies to God. It all right to say to God, “God, wipe away my enemies.” It is all right to grumble and complain before God.

Because the fact is—as we’ve all learned by now—just because we pray for it doesn’t mean God is going to grant it. God knows what to grant in prayer and why. The important thing here is not what we are praying for. It is not important that in this Psalm we are praying for God to destroy our enemies. It is important that, even in our anger, even in our frustration and our pain, even grumbling and complaining, we have come to God. We have come before God as imperfect people. We have come to God with our big, giant egos. We have come to God with a long dark shadow trailing us.

I have heard people say that we shouldn’t pray these difficult passages of the Psalms because they are “bad theology” or “bad psychology.” They are neither. They are actually good theology and good psychology. Take what it is that is hurting you and bothering you and release it. Let it out before God. Be honest with God. Even if your anger is directed at God for whatever reason, be honest with God. Rail and rant and rave at God in your anger. God can take it.

But, the Psalms teach us as well that once we have done that—once we have opened ourselves completely to God—once we have revealed our shadows to God—then we must turn to God and praise God for the goodness in our lives as well. See what we find in today’s Psalm after that little verse that may have caught us?

I will offer you a freewill sacrifice
and praise your name, O LORD, for it is good.

See, it is good theology; it is good psychology. It’s good theology because we are being open and honest in our relationship with God. And it is good psychology because we not carrying around that psychological baggage that can hurt us and eventually destroy us. Hatred and anger and pain are things that, in the long run, make us less than who we are meant to be.

At some point, as we all know, we must grow beyond whatever anger we might have. We must not get caught in that self-destructive cycle anger can cause. We must not allow those negative feelings to make us bitter.

In the same way it’s good psychology and good theology when we can recognize that shadow side of ourselves and, like our stubborn egos, we can see it for what it is: an illusion. It is not us—not who we really are. It is a fragment of ourselves and one that simply dissolves in the Light of God that we find shining on us in Jesus.

So, when we pray these psalms together and we come across those verses that might take us by alarm, recognize in them what they truly are—honest prayers before God More importantly, pray those psalms when you are angry or frustrated. Pray those psalms when your ego is strutting about thinking it is so wonderful. Pray those psalms when you are grumbling and complaining. Let the Psalms help you to release your shadow side to the God who loves you and knows you more completely than anyone else.

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