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Sermon Series on Brian McClaren’s book Naked Spirituality

Preached:  March 17, 2013

Every Saturday morning when I read the paper, I have three rituals.  Of course these, rituals don’t take long because the paper is thin.  1) The first ritual: I glance at the home section and ask myself  facetiously: “Where am I going to live this week”.  2) The second ritual is less facetious:  I glance at Saturday’s Child and pray for that child.  I think about whether I would allow Saturday’s Child to ever break my heart enough to consider taking that child into my home or not.  3) The third ritual: I read the Faith & Values page.  They have contributors from spiritual leaders in the community writing about the spiritual life.   Yesterday’s Column by Jodi Detrich had this heading:  “Let us Rejoice in our blessings, not wallow in our hardships.”  Certainly that is biblical:  Rejoice in the Lord always.  The apostle Paul was always talking about the blessing of hardships.  However, if something horrible has happened in your life, you don’t immediately start rejoicing, and expecting someone to rejoice in the midst of life’s hardships is downright cruel.

Some people think the goal of the Christian life is to be happy. Filled with joy perhaps, but happiness is fleeting, and I don’t believe that is necessarily the ultimate goal.  I think that it is false to give people the impression that faithful disciples of Christ are always happy, and that despair indicates a failure of faith. I think the goal of the Christian life, of following Jesus, is about relationship, about authenticity, about showing up and being real – not hiding, not masking.  We do that enough in our everyday world.

Some people’s personalities are more like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, and some people are more like Eeyore.  But that doesn’t mean that the Tiggers of this world are immune from suffering.  With my personality, I could easily be likened to Tigger, but sure enough there are moments in my life that are enough to bring me crashing down.

Have you ever been with a distraught three year old child?  Have you ever had any success in consoling that child who really, really wanted the green one and not the red one?  You might reason with the child, or attempt to tell them it’s really ok to have the green one.  In my experience neither reasoning or telling a child it’s ok ever worked very well.  As an adult, it seems so trivial, and silly really, and yet, there is the inconsolable child who is upset about the unfairness and injustice of it all.  To them, it’s the end of the world.

Have you ever tried to console the teenage girl who didn’t get invited to the party?

To us in our grown up minds, these kinds of events seem sooooo trivial in the whole scheme of things.  In our rational mind, we say “Get over it.  This is not a big deal.  There are more important things.”  But really, in that moment…there are NO words that are going to make it any better.  And the world is definitely coming to an end.

When we grow up and mature, we realize there are bigger losses than not getting the green one, or not getting invited to a party.  But like that three year old child, or the teenage girl, we, too are inconsolable.  And underneath it all, we may be angry with God.

Sooner or later, to one degree or another, and probably many times over in our lives, all of us who are seeking to know and love God will experience anger at God, and feel abandoned over God’s apparent absence.

It might be a failed relationship or the death of a loved one. Like Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemene, we may experience betrayal, or denial, or abandonment of or our friends.  We might be consumed by financial worries. Or any number of things about which we feel we have no control.  It may happen at a time of crisis: the tragic death of a child or spouse that plunges you into depression.   Or losing a baby through miscarriage.  Or losing your job. It may be the diagnosis that your cancer has returned for the third time.  Or it may be some terrible event or injustice in the world. And we ask, we shout, How could a loving God allow this to happen?

There may be no dramatic event at all. There simply comes a time in your spiritual life when the warm feelings of being in relationship with God have disappeared, like it did for Mother Teresa. When you’ve lost that assurance that God is with you. When you pray and there is no sense of the warm presence of God.  In fact, there is nothing.

Sometimes well-meaning friends say things to try to help you feel better. Here are a few that I’ve heard people say trying to be helpful:

It’s going to be OK.  You’ll get over it.

Chin up and bear it.  Put on your happy face.

There’s always someone worse off than you are.

No one ever said that life was fair.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

Believe me, I know exactly how you feel.

Seven years ago when I was the pastor at Snoqaulmie, my office manager’s 16 year old daughter tragically drowned in the Snoqualmie river and one well-meaning person uttered these words:

God needed another angel in heaven.  She’s in a better place now.

At the time when someone is suffering deeply, these kinds of “helpful” words, are really not so helpful.  Sometimes no word at all is the best.  Maybe letting people know that it’s ok to be angry at God for what has just happened.  I sometimes hear people talk guiltily about feeling anger toward God. Many times we get angry at God for those things that we have no control over. And since no one else seems to be available to be angry at, we get angry at God.  And then we feel guilty about it.

God already knows that we are angry.  Our anger will not come as a surprise to God.

Second, God knows the source of our anger. God knows all about our situation. God knows our emotions and feelings. For all we know, God might even share our anger!

Many of us are afraid of our anger, or we deny that we are anger.  But unexpressed anger, dormant anger has a dark side as well.  When we deny our anger, it can come out in physical manifestations.  It can also be mis-directed toward those we love the most. Too often we let our anger build up inside us, growing until it seeks escape in destructive and violent ways.

Expressing our anger (in healthy ways) is healthy. Rather than keeping it all pent up inside us, some times just letting go and yelling our heads off can be a good thing. Sometimes the most healing thing we can do is to get angry at God.  It’s part of the process of healing and moving to the other side of grief. Yell at God.  Clear the air with God about your anger.

Brian McLaren writes: In these moments, you raise your fists and you rage at God. No! you shout. No! you scream. No! you groan. You cry if you can. But whatever you do, don’t be silent.  Keep shouting. “No, no–I will not reject God! But no,–neither will I deny my questions, either! No, I will not cave into despair, but  neither will I be pacified with unsatisfying answers or superficial comfort! No!”  The practice of refusal or no may sound like unbelief or blasphemy.  But it isn’t a rejection of God.  It’s a refusal to accept unsatisfying attempts to let God off the hook.  And it’s a parallel refusal to give up hope altogether.   Ultimately it’s about relationship with God.

Just don’t stay there forever!!!  The process is about releasing your anger.  There is a quote attributed to Winston Churchill, When you’re going through hell, keep going. Don’t stay there.

Part of the spiritual process might include turning to the Psalms of Lament.  Did you know that there are more psalms about anger at God, and “despairing of God,” than about any other subject? These are called Psalms of lament and they are the most common form of prayer in the Bible.

These psalms can teach us about how to go through our own times of anger, grief, and despair. When dark times descend, what should we do?  One thing that biblical scholars have noticed about psalms of lament is that they typically follow a three-fold pattern. They begin with an anguished cry or complaint: “Why have you forsaken me?”  There is no shyness about complaining to God, no hesitation in naming the feeling of being deserted by God. There is just this vulnerable, aching, angry cry.

The scriptures testify that many faithful souls before us have experienced “despairing of God.” Think of Elijah in his desolate cave. Or Job, loudly insisting that God has been unjust, and God validating Job’s relentless honesty! Think of Mary’s vigil at the cross. Think Jesus himself crying out, quoting Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” None of these were displeasing to God, or lacking in faith.

You could make the case that anger and despair are especially acute for those who do know and love God. The people who have known the goodness of God and the joy of God’s presence are those who would be angrily mystified by evil.

This crying out to God, this way of praying of being angry with God presumes relationship.  There is some trust in God’s care.  There is some kernel of faith evidenced by shouting out to God! Crying out to God—even in pain and anger—is an act of faith.

Our Psalms teaches us to go ahead and give voice to your anguish. As McLaren says, “Cuss if you must, and cry if you can. But whatever you do, don’t be silent.”

But if you read the Psalms of Lament all the way through, they don’t stop with complaining or anger.  The psalmist remembers those times in the past when God has been present.   When he DID feel God’s love and care.  The Psalmist remembers and claims what he has known of the goodness of God.  Somehow, mysteriously, in crying out to God, our hearts may begin to soften once again.

Which brings us to the third and last element in the psalms of lament. You have voiced your rage and despair. You have claimed the truth and goodness of the past.  Now it is time to simply endure the present darkness.      “I will carry on faithfully, even in the midst of my anger and despair. What I learned to do in the light of God’s love, I will continue to do in the darkness of God’s absence. I will pray, listen, work, and worship. I will persevere, carry on with life, and wait.

A.A. and other recovery groups recite, “One day at a time.” I think of Jesus saying, “Let the day’s troubles be sufficient for the day.”

Most helpful words to say to someone who is suffering:

“Right now, you may not be able to imagine ever laughing, or finding joy in life again. But one day, you will.”

None of us will ever fully understand the reasons for times of despair in the spiritual life. While such times may be inevitable, they were never meant to be permanent. With God, “No!” is never the last word. Though we cry out, “God, why have you abandoned me?” One day, we will find ourselves on the other side of the anger and pain. And we will look back on our present darkness, and be able to declare: “I will praise you…for you, God, have answered me.”

Laments from Scripture

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me (Psalm 13:1-6). 

O Lord, how long will you look on? Rescue my life from their ravages, my precious life from these lions. I will give you thanks in the great assembly; among throngs of people I will praise you (Psalm 35:17-18). 

I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?” Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God (Psalm 42:9-11).