If all you ever heard at church were songs and sermons and cute clichés—that is, if you left out the Bible—you might be persuaded that Christianity was a pleasant short of religion, full of bedtime stories for children. If you crack open this book at all, you are bound to be disturbed.
An alarming case in point, Psalm 137, verses 8-9: “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy are those who repay you . . . happy are those who seize your infants and dash them against the rocks.”
This . . . is the Word of the Lord?
Just try to reply, “Thanks be to God,” and tell me the words don’t stick in your throat?
Do not get me wrong. I love Scripture. But if I’m not honest about what’s actually in here, then I am in love with a phantom. And Psalm 137:8-9 is definitely in there. But you will hardly ever hear Psalm 137 read in a church. Dashing babies against rocks hardly seems like worship-material.
However, I found that monks don’t shy away. The Benedictine monastery I visited in New Mexico reads all 150 psalms every single week. All 150. Every week. It is a practice they will continue for the rest of their lives.
Now prior to visiting the monastery, I had read Psalm 137 before. In private. I think I had also discussed it a time or two in a seminary class. I had never, not once, read it out loud, in community, as worship. But then I was sitting in a mountainside chapel, gazing upward through the windows at the majesty of God’s creation, surrounded by monks and pray-ers from various traditions around the country, and I joined their chanting:
“Happy are those who seize your infants, and dash their heads on the rocks . . .”
It is no wonder Baptists stick to Amazing Grace and spontaneous prayers. Suddenly I had to face it head on that these words were in my Bible, belonged to my religion, and for the first time the words were a part of my worship, without much context to help make sense of them. There was no sermon to explain about freedom in prayer. There was no college professor, no scholarly commentary, no freshly printed journal article to offer up a tantalizing perspective or a helpful interpretation. We chanted the words, by themselves, just as monks have been doing week after week for centuries.
My reaction could be to judge the monks as naïve, participating in monotonous, unthinking recitation. But what happened instead is that I began to feel small and Christianity felt big, as if chanting those horrible words was a mysterious form of surrender. If I had chanted them alone, I am certain I would have felt and seemed like an insane person. Chanting them together made it holy—like we were confessing we did not know why some words are in our holy book, but we chose to sit tight anyway—together. We did not run away just because the words were strange.
I’d love to know what the monks must know about the Bible, after all those centuries of chanting, of facing the ugly stuff dead-on without so much as a clever interpretation to shield their view. They risk that frightening level of naked exposure to the text, week after week after week, and we never read a text like this in communal worship, ever. Who do you suppose has the more informed perspective?
Regarding difficult psalms, for about two and one half years, I could not bring myself to read Psalm 91. What could be worse than Psalm 137, you might be wondering. Oddly enough Psalm 91 is one of the pleasant Psalms, full of promises of protection and help and safety, shelter, deliverance, and salvation. But I couldn’t read it—not because it was horrible, but because it wasn’t true. I was certain the promises were lies. You know why?
Because Psalm 91 was Andrew’s psalm. I’ve mentioned him before—our friend we lost in November of 2007. Andrew spent two weeks in a coma after a bicycle accident. Those two weeks we gathered together in the hospital as the church has never gathered before, so it seemed to us. We were fervent in prayer and overflowing in hospitality, alive to each other and alive to God, plum full of hope and plagued by dread. Whether you knew Jesus before that event or not, entering that place you were absolutely swallowed up in Christian love. Who ever knew a waiting room could become such sacred space, waiting on the fate of a nineteen-year-old boy?
We read Psalm 91 every day, several times a day. It was Andrew’s favorite psalm and it was chalk full of the promises we desperately needed: “Surely God will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. No harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. He will commands his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways, so that you will not strike your foot against stone. I will rescue them; I will protect them. I will answer them. I will be with them in trouble. I will deliver them. With long life I will satisfy them.” We read and prayed and cherished and held on to those words, so glad, so proud they were in our holy book. So grateful that words like these belonged to us.
Then, Andrew died.
That was in 2007, and I don’t know about the rest of the waiting room, but the Psalmist’s words turned bitter in my mouth, and I could not bring myself to read Psalm 91 again.
Then in 2010, I was chanting my way through the psalms with a group of Benedictine monks in the deserts of New Mexico. We chanted Psalm 137, and I cringed uncomfortably. Then we got to Psalm 91, and I think I nearly choked. I can’t even remember if the words made it past my lips, but it didn’t matter, because the room kept chanting even when I stopped. Every word reverberated on the walls. I started crying, and I couldn’t stop. Even after the service ended and all the people left, I remained behind in the empty stillness, tears flowing.
And to this day, I cannot explain or interpret or understand Psalm 91 to you any better than I could explain Psalm 137. All I can tell you it is in my Bible, and I am not running from it anymore, and one time it was made sacred to me in a waiting room at the hospital and then our hopes were shattered, and another time it miraculously became sacred again with a bunch of monks in the desert.
There are a lot of people in our society trying to make the Bible out to be a How-To book—how to fix your marriage, how to find happiness, how to vote, how to obtain success. Others try to make the Bible into a science textbook or a historical timeline or a psychology guide. We come to the Bible looking for specific answers to specific problems, and we are either sorely disappointed to find the answers missing or perhaps we contort the words to fit our agenda.
But the Bible isn’t a guidebook or a textbook; it is a Holy Book, and that is something different altogether. The Bible is not a text you dig through to find answers. It is a text you expose yourself to, hoping for a glimpse of God. Worshippers aren’t looking for success or happiness, a psychological diagnosis or a historical fact. Worshippers are on a quest to know God. Worshippers are not afraid of exposing themselves to words they don’t understand—at least, they are fearless enough to give it a try, even if they quake a little in their boots when they do.Sometimes texts confuse them. Sometimes words disorient them. Sometimes the holy words are just the words they were looking for. Sometimes the Scriptures aggravate them, and sometimes the Scriptures breathe life into dry bones.
They never know what they’ll get on a given day, but they come to the text open-handed and receptive rather than greedy and grasping, and that is what makes the adventure possible. Infused with a bit of the Spirit, an action as monotonous as reading turns into life-altering worship.
Today’s text is a poem from David lamenting the loss of his king, Saul and the loss of his best friend, Jonathan. God is not mentioned one time in all eleven verses. It is less of a prayer to God and more of a eulogy addressed to the community.
What makes this sacred text? Why did we say “This is the Word of the Lord?”
Chanting with the monks forced me to face my grief and my discomfort, my anger at the text and my anger with God. These are emotions happy-hearted church-goers like to leave out of the sanctuary: Leave your doubts and disappointments at home. Come with a smile, even if you have to fake it.
David’s lament is a resounding challenge to any expression of worship that turns a blind eye to pain, loss, and grief. Right here, in our very Bible—strange book that it is—there is deliberate space given to the act of grieving, articulate speech given to the expression of pain.
I am reading a book about grief written by a man who lost his wife, his daughter, and his mother all at one time in the same, terrible, head-on collision with a drunk driver. And while his loss may seem incomprehensible to many of us, he says we all, in one way or another, at one time or another face loss in our lives. You cannot traverse this life without facing death, pain, profound disappointment. “It is not, therefore,” he writes, “the experience of loss that becomes the defining moment of our lives . . . It is how we respond to loss that matters.” He says to deny our grief is like chasing the setting sun—the sun is faster than we are, and eventually the darkness will overtake us from behind. But if we face our darkness head-on—that is turn our backs on the setting sun and walk right into the horror of the black night, eventually we will meet the sunrise on the other side. The only way to find light is to head east, even though the only visible light of the sun is disappearing to the west.
David responded to loss by entering it. He didn’t side-step his pain nor neglect the pain of his community. He gave voice to the darkness that threatened to overwhelm them all, and in naming the pain, he set himself and the people in the right direction to see the light of day once more.
It has always bothered me since Andrew died, that so many churches give funerals and that’s all, as if our grief was buried and gone along with the casket. It wasn’t enough lament for me—for us, I think, and I had to go all the way to New Mexico to find a holy place to cry the pent-up tears. The waiting room at the hospital had been like the Holy of Holies; going back into the world to face our grief and disappointment was jolting and jarring, and there would have been no better place to face it than together, in halted worship.
Real worshippers do not deny reality or fake happiness nor do they separate the glory of God from the minutia of life. Worshippers know full well that life is brutal and beautiful all at the same time, and that God is right in the throbbing center—in the barren places and in the bountiful ones. Our Scriptures and our liturgies and our worship give expression to all of it, inviting God to enter the fray, and then delighting to discover He was there long before we thought to include Him.
Walter Brueggemann writes, “Sound religion is so often a matter of finding the right words, words that will let us genuinely experience, process, and embrace the edges of our life. The dominant ideology of our culture wants to silence all serious speech, cover all serious loss, and deny all real grief. But such a muteness will leave us numb, unable to hope or to care . . . [David’s] poem is a bold, daring, subversive alternative. It is an assertion and enactment of the conviction that our humanness may not and must not be silenced.”
We are so accustomed to thinking of Scripture as sacred text because God was involved in writing it. But is it not also sacred because it was penned by real humans facing real life, and infused with a bit of the Spirit, something as mundane as taking pen to paper was turned into life-altering worship? Likewise we bring our selves, our lives, our real problems to the text, and we do not hide from its words, jarring though they may sometimes be. It becomes a transformative surrender, this sheer act of engaged listening. And isn’t that what worship really is—giving ourselves over to something bigger than we are, trusting ourselves to the divine and to the sacred despite all our nagging questions and unrelenting fears?
May we show up, together, week after week, sometimes comforted by the familiar beauty, sometimes disturbed by strange words and trying circumstances. Either way, may we come for worship, open and receptive, hoping to see God. Amen.