Singing the Songs of Distress and Longing
On Ash Wednesday, I came to work earlier than usual. I opened a Psalter[i] to Psalm 6, found a midi file for the tune ‘Rockingham (old)’, and croaked my way through verses like this:
Have mercy, Lord, for I am faint, My very bones in agony.
Come heal me Lord, my anguished soul
Cries out, ‘How long, O Lord, how long?’
That night, I went to Bethel AME, and with about 40 others, stepped forward and had ashes placed on my forehead in the sign of the cross; ashes to remind me that from dust I was made and to dust I will return.
Every morning now, as part of my Lenten devotion, I arrive at my desk early, open my Psalter and sing. Every morning now my songs are cries for mercy, pleas for healing, angry fist shaking to the sky rhymed accusations to the Creator, affirmations of blessings past, hope for blessings yet to come. These are the stuff of the Psalms and the stuff of my heart as I face the spread of the cancer in me from my lungs into my pelvis.
If your vision of Christian piety is a gentle older woman, head bowed, hands pressed together, eyes closed, reciting, “The Lord is my Shepard . . .” that’s a good start, and it’s not wrong by any means. But if you really decide to open a Bible and start reading the Psalms for yourself, put on your seat belt first. The ride is plenty wild. The Psalmist accuses God of delaying action, of being asleep at the wheel as his promises seem to go unfulfilled. One Psalmist, near death, asks just who the heck does God think will praise Him if he is taken down to Sheol. Surely the dead don’t praise God eh? A friend of mine from my days in Toronto grad school has an article in a theological journal. He writes, “In contrast to the posture of unquestioning submission to God that informs spirituality in many faith traditions, the Hebrew Bible assumes a stance of vigorous protest towards God as normative”[ii] I think he’s on to something that answers my needs far better than those who look at me sadly and say, “well, I’m praying for God’s will”. My songs are too full of anger and lament for that kind of docile piety. My songs are the Psalms, full throated, deeply human cries for wholeness and blessing in the midst of fears and uncertainty.
Long ago, the exiles asked (Psalm 137), “How can we sing the songs of Adonai here on foreign soil?”
These are the tunes of my Camino now.
[ii] Middleton, J. Richard, “God’s Loyal Opposition: Psalmic and Prophetic Protest as a Paradigm for Faithfulness in the Hebrew Bible”. Canadian-American Theological Review, Vol. 5, no. 1, 2016, pp. 51-65.