In the 13th century, Italy was not the nation state that you see today. There were battles and wars between families and states and the Papal powers. In 1302, a new family took power in Florence and the previously powerful were exiled from their homes, from their communities, from the power that gave them meaning. Included in those exiled, was the poet Dante (Ali-geri )Alighieri. It is thought that it was while in exile he penned his famous Comedy with the opening lines:
Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. (Dante Alighieri)
What follows is Dante’s journey into the deep darkness of the human soul.
I found myself in the dark woods. I heard it said that poets go to the edge of the darkness, the edge of the cliff and look in or over, and come back to tell us about it, to put metaphor to our experiences, to the places we can’t always find words.
I love songs like “Walking on Sunshine” or “Happy” by Pharrell Williams or “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. They are great for karaoke, a sunny day at the beach, the beginning of road trip.
But, I think it’s the sad songs that bring up memories, that connect to our hearts, that touch our emotions. It’s Adele singing, “I heard that you’re settled down; that your dreams came true… Never mind, I’ll find someone like you…” Or the line in Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah that “love is not a victory march.” Malcolm Blackwell did a whole podcast on the saddest song: George Jones sang Bobby Braddock’s song about a woman who ended a relationship and he told her he’d love her forever, he kept her photo and letters, but he stopped loving her today.
We love songs that speak to our experiences, that put metaphor to our pains, that give language to the moments. Because who hasn’t lost someone they love, or questioned love at all, or grieved. Who hasn’t asked like our Psalmist: “How long must I wait”? whether it’s in the middle of a pandemic quarantine, or it’s time to go and your kids can’t find their shoes, or that job promotion or interview just isn’t coming, or… or… “How long must I wait” when all I keep hearing is no, or not yet, or silence.
I wonder what you think when someone brings such a question, such a complaint, such honest, vulnerable, and hurting language to God. Have you been told it’s disrespectful to be so plain? to question “God’s plan?” Have you been told that such feelings would be better off shoved deep and quieted? That God only deserves praise?
Sometimes we get so caught up in the right words that we forget we have a God who came to earth to show us love and how to love, that God again and again throughout scripture sought to be in relationship with God’s people, that prayer is meant to be a mediation, a conversation. Being angry is part of being in relationship with someone. Because the God who came to earth in Jesus also suffered, grieved, cried out, was angry. God isn’t afraid of your anger, your disappointment, your fear, your honesty.
The Psalms of Lament put honest words to the experience of being human and teach us that we can be that honest, too. Sometimes our pain, our griefs, our wounds drive us inside ourselves and keep us alone. We can circle in on the wound, closed in tight, away from everyone, hoping if now one sees it it will just vanish. But we learned from Harry Potter that even not naming the terrible thing doesn’t mean the terrible is gone, it means it can fester and grow.
But when we lament it is a prayer, it is a response to suffering in our lives and in the world around us. And there is much to lament in the world around us. As much as we want to talk about a return to normal, nothing will be the same. Children and grandchildren and great grandchildren have grown a year older with time you can’t get back. Jobs have been lost or changed. Relationships have ended in fires or whispers. We saw a sickness of COVID and cancer and racism ravage those we love and those we don’t know. There are empty seats at tables that had been full a year ago. We have seen the best and maybe even the worst out of our neighbors. And maybe you’ve had an ok year. But someone we know, and more we don’t, and a global pandemic did not end struggles and wars and transitions and grief.
Lament is a response to the reality of suffering. And I think Michelle Reyes is right: it is what we need right now.
Because when we open up, when we speak the words of the Psalmist or laments of our own, when we give the wounds voice and light and air, there is an opportunity for healing. And we wait, we pray, we are honest and it can be scary to be that honest, but we do so as people with hope and trust–that is the turn at the end of the Psalm–hope and trust that when we are honest it will be received. You will be loved by this community and by God.
Elie Wiesel wrote a play called The Trial of God, which he set in Ukraine in 1649 after the Russian programs. He said though, that he got the idea from an event he witnessed as a boy in Auschwitz: “Three rabbis—all erudite and pious men—decided one evening to indict God for allowing His children to be massacred. I remember: I was there, and I felt like crying. But there nobody cried.” He also said, “I was there when God was put on trial… at the end of the trial, they used the word chayav, rather than ‘guilty.’ It means ‘He owes us something.’ Then we went to pray.”
In the face of incomprehensible pain and suffering, they took their complaint to God and continued to be in relationship with their God.
Jorgen Moltmann is a German theologian who began his career after the horrors of the Holocaust, wrote,
But the ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for and wait for; the ultimate reason is that we are wanted and wished for and waited for. What is it that awaits us? Does anything await us at all, or are we alone? Whenever we base our hope on trust in the divine mystery, we feel deep down in our hearts: there is someone who is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you.
*We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God’s first love.
Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life
When we wait, when we lament, we do so as those with hope, turning to each other, trusting in the God who made us, who accepts us, who waits and loves us.
So we get to be honest: with ourselves, with God, and it is my prayer, with each other. We get to be vulnerable. We get to tell the truth of the world we are part of, the pain we experience, the struggles we are having, the mountains we are still climbing. Whether it is the struggles of our personal moments, or months, or lifetimes, we can cry out “How long…?”. Or when it is a community in the midst of unimaginable pain and abuse, that can cry out “How long…?”. Such cries are personal and communal, honest and vulnerable, always answered with the Hope of God.
That hope calls us, even when we find ourselves in the middle of the dark wood to make one more step, and then another. To walk with those we meet on our way. To not give up, to be drawn back to God and to community.
There are times as a preacher I have to admit that someone has said it before, and said it better than me. I’m ok with that.
On March 21st, 1965, 8,000 people left the church in Selma to march to the capital city of Montgomery, Alabama. The last 2 weeks had seen brutal attacks on peace protesters by the police and the murder of a pastor. By the time they arrived at the capital 4 days later, they were 25,000. Dr. King offered up a lament in the tradition of the Psalms.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–Our God is Marching On–25 March 1965
I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?”
I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.”
How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.”
How long? Not long:
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne, Yet that scaffold sways the future, And, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, Keeping watch above his own.
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long,
but it bends toward justice.
How long? Not long, because:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on. He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat. O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet! Our God is marching on. Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah! His truth is marching on.
How long must we wait? It always seems too long. How long must we wait? And sometimes it has been. How long must we wait? But we don’t wait without hope. We wait knowing God is waiting for us too, accepting and loving us. We don’t wait alone. There is a community waiting for you, with you, in the suffering and the muck and offering hope while we wait. We lament, we cry out, we struggle with God and each other because we have hope. So may the words of the prophet be true, how long? not long.
L: The bad days are the longest days.
C: The days of pain. The days of sorrow.
L: They stretch ahead endlessly it seems.
C: All we need is some relief.
L: When it feels like we are alone
C: When it feels like God has forgotten us.
L: In the darkest moments
C: We believe God is still there.
L: Trusting is hard to do on the long, bad days
C: The days of pain. The days of sorrow.
L: But we trust that God loves us.
C: We trust that all will be well.
L: In God’s time, if not in ours.
C: How long, O Lord?
L: We don’t know how long.
C: But we believe God is with us.
L: We believe better days are coming.
C: And we will rejoice.
L: Believing and trusting
C: Will give us blessed relief.
L: Will remind us that we are not alone.
C: We are never alone.
L: Even on the bad days, the longest days
C: Especially on those long, bad days
L: We trust that God loves us.
C: We trust that all will be well.