Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Psalms of Doubt

A Reflection for Compline using Psalm 13.

David Runcorn tells the story of being in Church and hearing someone pray to God about a famine in India. It wasn’t the normal sort of intercessions that the congregation was used to: ‘God why on earth do you let this happen? Why don’t you do something about it? How can you let all of those people suffer in that way?’ Runcorn comments that the man praying was new to Christian faith and new to the church and so hadn’t learnt what constitutes good manners in praying. He goes on to hope that he never does.

What is refreshing about this story is the honesty and the directness that the pray-er has in addressing God. ‘Do something about it, how can you let such a dreadful thing happen?’ The man praying doesn’t have a neat theology of how bad things can happen. He has a healthy and human response to the awfulness of the situation he is praying about.

But imagine for a moment that prayers like this were said at one of the services in your church on a typical Sunday. I imagine there would be a fairly hushed response, followed by a sense that he wasn’t ready to be on the intercessions rota yet. And I think that I’d be one of the people making that suggestion. Our praying has a tendency to be rather polite. That’s not a bad thing, except where it stops us saying what we really want or need to say to God.

And that’s where the Psalm we read together tonight comes in. ‘How long …?’ is its repeated refrain. How long will god be hidden? How long will things be hard? How long will my enemies triumph? How long will I have to put up with this? And this is not an unusual reaction to the events that happen to us in our lives. How long? Why? Who do you think you are? Are you really there at all? These are the questions that we bring to God in the depths of our hearts. Although sometimes we don’t allow them to reach our vocalised or our thought out prayers. And what we should take from the Psalmist tonight is that we don’t have to come before God with a fully formed answer. We don’t have to come before God and be polite. We can ask questions, searching questions, of God. We can tell him what we really think, even when that is not what we think God wants to hear.

I chose Psalm 13 to read tonight because I remember finding it at the time of the last Gulf War. I was opposed to the war, but saddened by the Puritanism and self-righteousness of much of the opposition to the war that refused to accept that once we were going in things looked different. I also had a brother who fought in the war, just behind the British front line. Emotionally I found it a complicated and difficult time. My brother was putting his life on the line in a war I thought was stupid. Yet those who opposed the war seemed to me almost more gung-ho than those advocating the war. I wasn’t sure what to do, say or think, let alone how to pray. But thank heavens for the discipline of daily prayers and the regular diet of the Psalms. In saying my prayers I found that this Psalm with its echoing refrain of ‘how long?’ put many of my feelings into words. Now I say this not from any desire to show my politics, but to show that even things we don’t know what or how to pray about can be brought before God and the difficulties shared.

So from this Psalm of Doubt, we can take a way of praying that is more direct than we are usually comfortable with but which can break through to honesty. We can take the ability to ask questions of God. We can take the need we feel to bring the intractable questions of our lives into God’s presence to ask for help in sorting them out.

By the end of the Psalm, things seem to return to a sort of hard won normality, with the Psalmist proclaiming his trust and faith in the God who has dealt well with him in the past. There is faith in doubt, it seems, just as last week we found doubt in a Psalm of faith. This is so, I think, because the opposite of faith is not doubt – it is despair. Doubt leaves us asking questions, perhaps ever banging the table and demanding answers. Despair simply leaves the room. There is an important sense in which in asking the questions, in demanding the answers, doubt is refusing to give up on faith. It is trying to maintain faith in the midst of the trials of life.

I want to finish with a reference to the rock band U2. For many years U2 ended there live show with a Psalm, during which they would leave the stage, so that the audience went away singing the words from the Bible. It was a version of Psalm 40 that began ‘I waited patiently for the Lord, he inclined and heard my cry.’ But to this they grafted a very Psalm 13-esque phrase, and it was this that the audience left singing - ‘How long to sing this song?’ Patience is not a virtue often associated with rock musicians, so perhaps that was why the urgency of ‘how long?’ appealed. But I think that this doubting question is actually a song of hope. How long to sing this song can be a form of doubt that moves close to despair. But the repeated singing of this phrase by thousands as they left a concert was an uplifting experience. It was as if we were promising to keep singing the song, to keep asking the questions, in the hope that sooner or later we would be answered, and then all would be well. Let us keep doubting, keep questioning, and keep the faith that all will be well and all manner of things will be well.


Kunnagh said...

Hi Simon

Thanks for the U2 memory - took me back to thousands of us leaving Cardiff Arms Park (?1987? good grief...) still singing 'How long...' as we went back to coaches and cars. :-)

People Power Granny said...
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