A few years ago I got in a little trouble with a church member for a sermon I preached, entitled, “The Awful Grace of God.” In it, I quoted a little poem written some 2500 years ago by the Greek dramatist, Aeschylus. He said, “They who learn must suffer. Even in our sleep, Pain which we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, Until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God.”
The member, rightfully, took me to task for calling something so beautiful as the grace of God “awful.”
“Why would you call God’s grace awful?” She asked me. “The grace of God is a wonderful, beautiful thing.” I recall her telling me. And she is right. It is.
The grace of God is like butter on a biscuit; it just makes everything better.
But getting to a place where the grace of God can sooth our aching hearts; that’s the part that I think the poet was getting at, in his description of the awful grace of God.
The description of God’s grace as, “awful,” is more in reference to the path the speaker had to take in order to achieve the wisdom described. And the grace piece that is given is more in reference to the gift of a new way of seeing the world; albeit a less brighter one, assuming the pain the speaker speaks of is one that transforms the heart through the wrenching and twisting process one must submit too when the more difficult indisputable truths of life take hold. Truths like sickness, violence, poverty, fear, sadness, sinfulness and death.
If you’ve ever seen someone struggle through a trying time, you’ll understand what Walter Brueggemann was referencing when he said, “When we are in extremus, in that state, safe, conventional caregiving doesn’t cut it.”
When I was working as a chaplain, there was a woman I had been visiting whose husband was dying in the ICU. One day, in the hallway, she asked for me to pray with her. And I did my best. When I said the final amen I looked up to see her staring at me, and she said, “That did nothing for me.” And she walked away. But…but I prayed for you…My fellow chaplains (all of whom were wizened, older chaplains) got a kick out of my bafflement at being so clearly dismissed. But that was a good example for me to know that sometimes, conventional caregiving doesn’t cut it.
Sometimes the prayers we have been taught, or the manner in which we use them, are not sufficient when wrestling with our mortality or the pain we sometimes feel.
After the death of my father it was the poets who best offered me the grace I was seeking. I would return time and time again to Wendell Berry and Sharon Olds; Wendell, who so eloquently and simply sees the passages of life. And Sharon, who is not afraid to shout it out a little; to tear at the flesh and scowl at the inhumanity of death, a little. In those moments, I didn’t have to give myself permission to feel the way I was feeling; I didn’t have to make excuses for the radical ways in which my head was spinning. I could simply sit and be and say, “Yes. That is how I feel right now. And that is ok for me to feel that way.”
As we were preparing for this service, Larry transposed our, “hallelujah” so it was in an easier key to sing and to play. And I thought, you know, that’s what the poets help us do. They help us transpose the difficulties of life to an easier, more manageable key. Especially the psalms; especially the psalms of lament. “Out of the depths O Lord, I call to you! Waiting and watching.” I know those depths! I’ve made those calls! I know how it feels to wait, and to watch for a sign of affirmation. But I haven’t made those calls from this sanctuary.
I am concerned that we have spent too much time sanitizing the realities of life and faith, and not enough time giving each other permission to shake our fists at God.
Case in point: By the Rivers of Babylon. Based on Psalm 137, by the rivers of Babylon is one of the most powerful and shocking psalms of lament in the Bible. But put a little reggae beat into it, and you’ve transformed it into something completely different. “By the rivers of Babylon- where we sat down- and there we wept when we remembered Zion- for the wicked carried us away to captivity, required from us a song, how can we sing in a strange land?”
“By the Rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. Our captors demanded from us a song. But how can we sing a song to the Lord in a foreign land? Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. They cried, “Tear it down! Tear it down to its foundations. Daughter Babylon, you are doomed to destruction. Happy will be the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy will be the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
Try putting that to a reggae beat.
Life is filled with death and sadness and grief and awfulness. And we as the church must give each other the space and the permission to shake our fists at God when the awful times come. Sometimes, it’s the only way to get through. We can’t just be there for each other in the good times; and we’re not, we’re good at gathering in the bad times as well; but in our own times of darkness, it’s ok to be angry and sad.
Many of the psalms are poems of lament and sadness; bringing to light the troubles of the world, and bringing to confession the challenges of the writers. Some of them, you read them and you can’t help but be shocked that these words and images made it into the holy library. There are regular calls to cut down enemies like trees, caustic demands for God to pay attention, heavy use of sarcasm and some of the most cutting descriptions of people you could imagine. Eugene Peterson’s translation of Psalm 58 begins, “Is this any way to run a country?! Is there an honest politician in the house? Behind the scenes you brew caldrons of evil; behind closed doors you make deals with demons.” They go on to say, “God, smash their teeth to bits, leave them toothless tigers. And it only gets worse from there.
If you haven’t spent some time with the psalms lately, you really might want to give it a try.
In all of our niceties and pleasantries and platitudes, it’s affirming to know that not only is it ok to be indignant every once in a while, it’s also ok to take God to task for the injustices we see; and take it to God in prayer. Think of it; all the great ones do it. Abraham, Sarah, Ruth and all the prophets. David was one of the most prolific writers of the psalms, and you can hear his anguish and his righteousness in many of them. Even Jesus and the elders of the church, James and Peter and the other disciples took their disputes, both internal and those with the community, to God; and called God to task in sometimes harsh and challenging ways. So it’s ok for us to feel that way. It’s ok for us to pray that way.
But it is also important not to dwell in the anguish and the anger. There has to be progress made.
I know people who have experience tragedy and loss in their lives, and have never set foot in a church again. There are people I know, and surely you do too, who can hold a grudge like it’s their job. Be it against another person or against God; there are people I know with whom there is no negotiation, so we shouldn’t even try. But what I’ve seen is when someone is unwilling to even shed a little light on the possibility of reconciliation, the anger and the bitterness that was once so empowering has become all encompassing, and overwhelming. Do you know someone like that? Who just won’t let something go and who insists, on poisoning every other facet in their lives? It’s tragic; because these days of life are far too few to waste on nasty things like bitterness or anger. We must be willing to move beyond.
“Learning how to lose the things we hold dear in a healthy way is one of life’s most important challenges.” Those were the wise words of a Baptist minister who lost his daughter to leukemia; Rev. John Claypool. He documented his own struggles with loss in a beautiful little book titled, “Tracks of a Fellow Struggler.” For Rev. Claypool, he believed that one of the most important and challenging turns to make in any experience of anger, grief or loss is a willingness to become vulnerable once again. He believes this is the only way we can heal our brokenness and return to wholeness.
David Whyte another one of my favorite poets and philosophers, says this about that, “Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without. It’s not a choice; it is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from it is to run from the essence of our nature. The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance.”
The world could use a little more vulnerability these days.
And that is the third most common motif in the psalms; not just vulnerability, but more the recommended path to get back to that place of wholeness. Through gratitude. Hymns of Thanksgiving.
“Where can I go from your spirit, o God? Where can I flee from your presence? If I fly to the farthest shore, you’re there. If I made my bed in hell, you are with me. Guide me on the path to eternal life,” says one of my favorites, Psalm 139.
Even in the deepest and darkest of nights, Even when we must sit at a table in the presence of our enemies, even when we weep by the rivers of Babylon, when we can still find something to be grateful for, we are saved. Gratitude is the greatest gateway to remembering our vulnerability; because with gratitude we are able to admit that we can’t do this thing alone, that this life is better lived with others by our side. We are able to open our hearts just wide enough to let a little love escape, and when we do that it returns to us tenfold. Gratitude helps us keep an eye on the good things in this life; and there are so many good things that to neglect them is to neglect an opportunity to dance in the light of the world.
One of the best psalmists of our century is Leonard Cohen; who beautifully captures this idea in his song, “Anthem.” In it he says,
“The birds they sang
At the break of day
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be
Yeah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free
Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in”