This sermon was preached on June 14, 2015, at Winnetka Presbyterian Church. My text was Psalm 69. You can listen to it, and read it, below.[audio:http://pomomusings.com/wp-content/mp3/The-Long-Sit.mp3]
Well…that’s a cheery text.
It’s not often that the Psalms get preached on during the normal course of the various lectionaries churches use, and so when we think of the Psalms, we are often drawn to those that might be the most familiar.
Of course, Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…” might be the first that comes to your mind. Or maybe Psalm 150, the last Psalm and one that is all about praising God:
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary!
Praise God in his fortress, the sky!
Praise God in his mighty acts!
Praise God as suits his incredible greatness!
Praise God with the blast of the ram’s horn!
Praise God with lute and lyre!
Praise God with drum and dance!
Praise God with strings and pipe!
Praise God with loud cymbals!
Praise God with clashing cymbals!
Let every living thing praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
Perhaps Psalm 42 reminds you of a song you may have sung at camp when you were a kid:
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
Or maybe it’s Psalm 139, the reminder of how intimately our Creator knows each and every one of us:
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
When people new to Christianity or the Bible have asked me where they should start, I’ve often directed them to the Psalms, and just encouraged them to start reading and immerse themselves in the songs and prayers of the authors. When someone has come to me with a deep burden, sadness or anger, I’ve directed them to the Psalms, for there is no better place to hear fear, anger and lament than in the prayers and cries of the Psalms.
There is some wonderful theology in the Psalms, and some beautiful poetry, speaking to humanity’s relationship with God and the ways in which God knows us, cares for us and loves us, and the various ways in which we can offer up praise to God.
And then there are Psalms like Psalm 69.
A little different than some of the other Psalms we may be more familiar with.
And yet, that’s the amazing beauty of the Psalms. I think every imaginable human emotion is displayed throughout the 150 different Psalms. And they’re not all happy-happy-joy-joy. And for me, that’s the best part.
Who wants to read 150 Psalms that are all about how great God is and how much we want to praise God? Not me. Because that’s not how I feel 100% of the time. No one can live a life like that. We experience too many difficult things in our lives.
People get cancer. Our children die. Natural disasters kill people we know and strangers around the world. Marriages end. People get diagnosed with mental illness. Careers end, jobs are lost. Car accidents happen. Our parents die. Children are enslaved all around the world. Bankruptcy. Miscarriage. Depression. Anxiety. And more…
Praise God with clashing cymbals!
Let every living thing praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord?????
I don’t think so.
Save me, God, because the waters have reached my neck!
I have sunk into deep mud.
the flood has swept me up.
I am tired of crying. My eyes are exhausted with waiting for my God.
I am insulted because of you. Shame covers my face.
Yah – that’s more like it.
Scholar Walter Brueggemann writes extensively about the Psalms, and in his book, Praying the Psalms, he says the Psalms reflect two very basic movements in everyone’s life.
- The first is the move into the “pit”. It happens when our world collapses around us and we feel that there is no way out of the deep hole into which we have sunk. We’ve all been there.
- The other move is out of the pit into a welcome place. We suddenly understand what has happened and who has brought us up out of the pit.
Doesn’t that sound about right? That life is a constant journey of falling in the pit, and getting out of the pit to a welcome place…and then along comes another pit and then another opportunity to get out of the pit, etc., etc.
Additionally, Brueggemann says the Psalms all fit into three main categories that reflect the various places we all find ourselves at certain points in our lives:
- First is a place of orientation, in which everything makes sense in our lives;
- Second, a place of disorientation, in which we feel we have sunk into the pit; and
- Third, a place of new orientation or reorientation, in which we realize that God has lifted us out of the pit and we are in a new place full of gratitude and awareness about our lives and our God.
Don’t you think these three categories accurately reflect where we are at pretty much any given moment in our lives?
Things are going pretty well for us when we’re in the orientation phase. Our marriages are going well, kids are happy, jobs are fun – or at least manageable…things are going along pretty smoothly.
And then comes the disorientation. This could be any of what I mentioned earlier – the stuff of life that just happens. Jobs are lost, marriages come to an end, kids graduate and move out…and then there is that period of disorientation. Nothing quite feels right, and we may in fact find ourselves at the bottom of a pit.
And then…hopefully…somehow…we are able to get ourselves to a place of new orientation or reorientation. We are able to work through the disorienting situations in our lives, and come out on the other side. Sometimes that happens for folks quicker than others…and sometimes that period of disorientation may be a really long time.
You may have heard people refer to those periods of disorientation as “dark times.”
I don’t know how many of you would say you’ve gone through your own “dark times” or “darkness” – but I imagine quite a few of you have. I certainly have.
It’s not fun, to say the least. It can be horrible. Long. Draining.
Maybe some of you would say you’re currently living that darkness…that disorientation. My prayer is that this community would be the place where we can come together and share those dark times with one another. That we don’t come here on Sunday morning, wearing our Sunday best, trying to seem “put together” when we’re losing it on the inside.
If we want this church to be the welcoming place that we say it is – we need to be able to create spaces where we can all come together…those who are in periods of orientation or reorientation – and those who are suffering through the darkness of disorientation.
Whether you call it “the darkness” or “dark times” or just straight up HELL or whether you join St. John of the Cross and think about these times as the “dark nights of the soul…” – we all probably have a sense of what these times are like.
And they’re not good times.
The Psalmist from Psalm 69 clearly gives us an idea of the darkness they are experiencing:
I have become a stranger to my own brothers, an immigrant to my mother’s children.
Because passion for your house has consumed me, the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me!
I wept while I fasted—even for that I was insulted.
When I wore funeral clothes, people made fun of me.
Those who sit at the city gate muttered things about me; drunkards made up rude songs.
No one wants to endure periods of disorientation. No one necessarily likes the darkness, the things we’re afraid of…there is a desire to rush across the dark room so we can flip on the light. We think we can and should rush through the darkness to get to the light, so we can get to where God is.
But others would argue that we shouldn’t rush the darkness. We shouldn’t try to avoid it at all. And actually, it can be a time of deep growth, knowledge and transformation.
In Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she writes:
“I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”
She needs darkness? What a different view that is of darkness than how I typically view it – something to avoid at all costs.
She goes on:
“When I stopped trying to block my sadness and let it move me instead, it led me to a bridge with people on the other side. Every one of them knew sorrow. Some of them even knew how to bear it as an ordinary feature of being human instead of some avoidable curse. Watching them ride the waves of their own dark emotions, I learned that sadness does not sink a person; it is the energy a person spends trying to avoid sadness that does that.
I would highly recommend the entire book by Barbara Brown Taylor, as I think she offers some profound wisdom in the book about darkness, and learning what it means to walk in the darkness, to sit in the darkness.
In the book, she shares the story of the time she went caving with a couple, and at various points in the cave, they’d all get to a quiet spot, turn their headlamps off, and just sit in the stillness, in the quiet, in the dark.
They did a couple of these short sits, as they called them, and when they got to the deepest part of the cave they would be exploring that day, they began their longest sit of the day. Maybe you can picture that absolute darkness. You can’t see your hand in front of your face at all. Absolute stillness.
It is then that she soaks in the darkness and writes this somewhat lengthy, but really poignant, reflection:
This time I think about all the great spiritual leaders whose lives changed in caves. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, meditated regularly in them, setting such an example for his followers that if you go to India, China, or Tibet, your tour guide can almost always take you to a meditation cave. In Bhutan, you may even be invited to prostrate yourself in front of a niche in the wall where a great master once sat, hollowing out the rock by the force of his consciousness alone.
Muhammad spent a lot of time in a small mountain cave two miles outside of Mecca, where he meditated and prayed for days at a time. On what has become known as the Night of Power, the angel Gabriel came to him there. “Recite!” Gabriel said. “Recite what?” Muhammad asked, and Gabriel told him, so the first verses of the Qur’an spooled into the world from the belly of a cave.
Jesus was born in a cave and rose from the dead in a cave. Like most Westerners, I always thought of the stable in Bethlehem as a wooden lean-to filled with straw, at least until I went to the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank . There I learned that caves made the best stables in Jesus’s day— no wind whistling through the boards, no predators sneaking up on you from behind. The traditional place of Jesus’s birth is not in the Church of the Nativity but under it, in a small cave under the altar. The cave in which he rose from the dead is long gone, covered over by the huge Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Today visitors stand in line to enter a mausoleum that looks nothing like a hole in the ground. This may be just as well, since no one knows for sure what happened there.
By all accounts, a stone blocked the entrance to the cave so that there were no witnesses to the resurrection. Everyone who saw the risen Jesus saw him after. Whatever happened in the cave happened in the dark. As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part. Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air. Sitting deep in the heart of Organ Cave, I let this sink in: new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.
I imagine as she was leaving that cave and heading back to the surface, heading back toward the light, that she would describe that as a type of reorientation. As they traced their steps back, as the caverns and rocks began to look familiar, and then finally, as they emerged into the brilliant daylight…she may have experienced a sense of reorientation.
I don’t know about you – but that image of being in a cave, or a pit, speaks to me. Being down there, in the darkness…and that challenge to not immediately try and run away and get out and get to the light. For one thing, making a lot of sudden movements and attempts at quick escape when you can’t even see your hand in front of your face…that seems like it will only lead to injury.
So what would it feel like for you to have a long sit in the darkness?
To allow yourself to sit with that disorientation, to sit with that discomfort and stillness…all the while, holding out hope for the new life that can be birthed in the darkness?
That doesn’t sound easy to me, by any means. But in our Psalm today, I think we get a glimpse of that in the last couple verses.
13 But me? My prayer reaches you, Lord, at just the right time. God, in your great and faithful love, answer me with your certain salvation!
14 Save me from the mud! Don’t let me drown! Let me be saved from those who hate me and from these watery depths!
15 Don’t let me be swept away by the floodwaters! Don’t let the abyss swallow me up! Don’t let the pit close its mouth over me!
16 Answer me, Lord, for your faithful love is good! Turn to me in your great compassion!
It’s still not quite a Psalm 150 type of praise psalm, but there does seem to be a bit of a shift here…maybe a step toward reorientation. While Psalm 69 has primarily been focused on the disorientation we experience in our lives, here at the end are a few moments of seeing glimpses of hope, seeing some small, tiny, cracks of light in the darkness that wants to consume everything and everyone.
A pastor friend of mine took the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), and counted all of the verses that took place in Egypt, those that took place in the Wilderness and those in the Promised Land.
What he found was that 82% of the verses were from the wilderness period.
We are, and have always been, wilderness people. We are people who will be journeying through the darkness – though sometimes it will certainly feel darker than others.
But what would it look like to approach those periods of deep darkness as if we were entering a dark cave? What if we viewed these times as journeys inward, adventures, rather than periods of dread and difficulty? What would it look like if we took the time to have a long sit…in the midst of the darkness?
Almost certainly it would be uncomfortable. It would be disorienting. And it would obviously be scary.
But new life starts in the dark.
Hope is present in the dark.
And maybe approaching our times of darkness – whatever the darkness is for each of you…maybe we would be able to get to the place that the Psalmist gets to at the end of Psalm 69. The darkness isn’t necessarily gone. The lament and period of disorientation is still there.
But…there is something. A turn toward hope amidst the darkness.
My prayer reaches you, Lord, at just the right time. God, in your great and faithful love, answer me with your certain salvation! Answer me, Lord, for your faithful love is good!
May it be so for us. Amen.