October 2, 2011 How Long, Lord?
Exodus 20:1-4, 18-20 Psalm 6 Phil. 3:4b-14 Mt. 21:33-43
“With leaves crackling and crunching under our feet for the first time this season, my neighbor and I set off on our early morning walk. Frosty night air and gusty winds had stripped tree branches and carpeted lawns and streets in gold. Despite a warmth that lasted through the beautiful Indian summer, suddenly winter was on its way. No matter that we might have preferred the comfort of warmer mornings or the bright early light of only a month ago, the march of the season was in progress. It seemed such a short time since we watched the budding greenness become a canopy of leaves over our heads and then its gradual transformation into golden brilliance. We walked through time. Each morning we saw life on its move, and the two of us part of the same process.
We know it when we see it, this dependable and constant parade of life that circles all around us: sunrise and sunset, seasons and tides. We may have our favorite seasons, but we know that each one has its place, its role in the movement of life and in the growth of everything around us.
Though we see it all around us, we struggle with recognizing and allowing that same process to happen within ourselves. We make our way through life as though we are so drastically different from the rest of creation that the same laws and ways of being do not apply to us. We love new life, but we want to gain it without losing the old. We want to come to life without first dying. The pain of losing or dying is too much. When we cannot avoid it, we hide the reality of death from ourselves. We disguise it or refuse to think about it. We never think of teaching our children or ourselves that this is the way of life, that loss is to be expected as well as gain. In fact unless we are willing to let go, there can never be gain.” Blessed Grieving: The Spirituality of Loss, by Joan Guntzelman
Wonderful time of year, as child/teenager favorite season, welcomed return of school year, structure provided, the beautiful fall colors, Halloween and other holidays yet to come – still love these
Bittersweet time – reminder that summer is over and winter will soon follow with ice, snow, cold, need to stay inside, shovel after snowstorms, driving on ice and snow covered roads – things I didn’t worry about as a child
Time of year reminds me of loss, natural rhythm of life and death, constant reminder in the seasons. Reminds me of people, places, times, parts of my life I have lost, now gone, just as trees are slowly and not so slowly stripped of leaves, can seem like I am both slowly and not so slowly being stripped of aspects of my life, children gone on to own life, health issues creep in, confronted with reality – I am in the autumn years of my life, winter is not that far away. The trees shout – pay attention, listen, time is short – both a wonderful time and a sad time.
Psalm, prayer of one deeply afflicted, could be by a physical ailment, depression stemming from physical ailment, or spiritual distress. All valid interpretations; each can be used depending on situation.
Psalm, person is suffering, does not question why, not a long theological treatise on suffering, accepts that they did something wrong and are being punished, common understanding of that time. First of seven penitential psalms, 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143, person doesn’t protest innocence, simply falls upon God’s mercy in repentance. Simply cries out in pain, asking for relief from suffering.
All of you know about physical suffering, chronic pain, illness that is part of growing old. In the face of such pain might seek to put blame somewhere – lack of exercise or too much exercise, too much red meat, fact you smoked thru mid-life, drink or lack of drink, whatever. We like to assign blame because then we feel less helpless, more in control. If we can blame ourselves then there’s something we can do about it, change our eating habits, life-style. If we did something wrong then we can seek forgiveness and be restored to health. But none of us can stop the passing of time, the effects of our body wearing out over time; nothing can stop the natural rhythms of life and death. Trees are not being punished when their leaves drop, just the way it is.
The psalmist is miserable, crying out in misery to God to hear his grief. He is worn out with his grieving, crying day and night, sinking into a state of depression; his whole life is but tears and mourning. He cries to God to hear his suffering, not only is he suffering physically, he is being beset by enemies. He calls upon God to save him calling upon God’s great mercy and if that is not enough he appeals to idea that if he dies and goes to Sheol, God will lose his praises since you can’t praise God once dead. Understanding was that after death people went to this underworld, a shadowy existence similar to Hades in Greek and Latin literature; wasn’t until second century before Christ that a more positive understanding of life with God after death began to emerge.
Psalmist is bargaining with God to get God to hear his plea and relieve him, very common human trait, assuming that God needs to be induced to do that which God is already willing to do for us out of God’s great love; that God is somehow withholding good things from his people, or that God needs our praises.
He cries out “How long?” How long indeed, how long do we have to wait, how long do we have to suffer in this life? How long until God answers our cries. Sometimes response is to wait, wait as long as it takes, waiting on God is a good place to be, however when we are suffering a minute can seem like a lifetime, hard to be told to wait. Sometimes the answer is now – now is the time for repentance, to return to the Lord, seek forgiveness. Sometimes the answer is never – this will never change. God does not turn back the course of time. God doesn’t make the leaves go back on the trees and restore them, nor will God restore our youth or our loved ones in this world. God will not go against the natural law that is written in creation no matter how much we may grieve.
Have you ever found yourself wondering, crying out to God, “How long, Lord?” Banging on the gates of heaven, trying to get God’s attention seemingly to no avail? Have you ever thought that God may very well say the same thing about us – How long? What will it take to get these people to wake up, listen? What more can I do?
Exodus reading, God gives the people his commandments, then puts fear into their hearts lest they might sin, yet they still do – fear didn’t work. Then in the Gospel we hear the parable of the tenants and the landowner. When he sends his servants, the prophets, they kill them. When he sends his very own son, they still don’t listen and kill him as well. What does it take? It seems that God uses every method he can think of to reach us and we still don’t listen. Problem not with God but with us, maybe we aren’t listening.
Something happens in the psalm and there is a shift. Common in the psalms, saw it in psalm 5, shift from complaining to rejoicing, today the shift is from sorrows and tears to vindication, knowing that God has heard the cries of the suffering. Psalms were used in liturgical settings, at this point something happened, perhaps an oracle, words of God spoken through a prophet or some other liturgical symbol of forgiveness and healing, confirming that God had heard the laments of the people. If using this psalm for personal prayer, might be good to pause at this point to listen to what God has to say; may not experience physical healing, however in experiencing God, God’s presence, comforted, allowing the shift to happen. Sometimes all we need is to know that God is with us, still loves us, that’s enough.
Paul in Philippians says he considers everything as loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus, for this he is willing to lose everything, give up everything, family, wealth, health. Yet we resist; it’s hard to reach the equanimity of Paul.
Sometimes when in pain we can be deaf to God. Human nature to weep, to grieve what we have lost, but in our grieving let us not be deaf to our God, let us not be so wrapped up in our own sorrows and hurts that we fail to see and hear God when he calls to us. Our God is doing all that he can to get our attention, through nature, through our lives – are we listening?
Robertson, Copyright, November 2011