Happy Ever After
The Psalmist writes in Psalm 34: “I prayed to the LORD, and he answered me; he freed me from all my fears. The oppressed look to him and are glad; they will never be disappointed. The helpless call to him, and he answers; he saves them from all their troubles. His angel guards those who honor the LORD and rescues them from danger.” (vs. 4-7)
My first reading of these verses in preparation for today made me a bit nervous. It seemed to say, “Pray, and you’ll never have any worries.” Sometimes the way we worship, and what we say to each other as Christians suggests the same thing: if you’re a Christian, you’ll never have any worries. And, of course, if you do have worries, then you’re not really a Christian.
No Room for Pain?
As I read this part of the Psalm, I couldn’t help thinking about little April Jones. I’m not sure if you followed anything of April’s story on Sky News. Hers is a story repeated all too often in South Africa, without the media coverage April received. Five-year-old April was abducted from near her home in a little Welsh village last month, while playing with some friends. She was apparently taken by a man well known to her and to the girls she was playing with at the time. He is in police custody, charged with her abduction and murder, but, in spite of a massive police search, there has been no sign of April.
I was reminded of the service of support and encouragement held in the local Anglican Church on the first Sunday after April’s abduction. The community was hurting. The people were struggling to understand what had happened in their midst. The police had just decided to add a charge of murder against the man they had in custody, and it suggested to the desperate community that the police had given up on finding April alive. They were trying to come to terms with that as they gathered in the local church to worship. Not for anything would I have wanted to be in the shoes of the Anglican priest who led the service, or of the Bishop who gave the sermon.
It was a very beautiful and very moving service, and the Bishop spoke very beautifully into that situation. Maybe that was exactly what the friends and family needed, but as Jen and I watched the service, I couldn’t help thinking, “There’s something missing.” I am looking on from a distance and I’m completely out of touch with what was going on, so this is not a criticism at all, but I was surprised that there was no room for questions, no lament, no anguish. Sorrow, yes, an expression of pain, but no anguish, no anger.
I wondered about people in the community who were angry: angry at what had happened, angry with God, angry with themselves, angry with the world. And I wondered about our own Christian community and churches all over the world. It seems that we expect people to leave their anger and negative thoughts outside the door when they come to church, so that we can worship God with happy thoughts and positive attitudes.
A Little Perspective?
Perhaps we think that putting our anger and other negative feelings aside while we worship allows us to forget them and we’ll go back into the world feeling happy again. And sometimes we do just need a little perspective. As we focus away from ourselves and onto the glory and wonder of God, we come to realise that these things that churn away inside, are not so important after all. They are insignificant in the bigger scheme of things. And that is sometimes an important thing to realise.
But some of the things that grab us and shake us and leave us angry or depressed, some of them, are far from insignificant. They are real; they are beyond our ability to deal with; they deserve our attention. The disappearance of a little girl from the heart of her community is surely one such. What then?
I believe our failure to acknowledge our true feelings in church and among Christians, our silence about these things, encourages the idea that real Christians don’t get angry; good Christians don’t get depressed, and if you’re serious about your Christian faith, getting rid of negative thoughts is top priority.
But we can’t do that, because all our feelings, positive and negative, are part of who we are, so we split our lives in two: our “good Christian” lives, where we don’t have any negative feelings, and what we call the “real world”, where our real feelings get expressed.
Of course, it’s not just the church that suffers from this denial of the negative. There’s a whole industry out there. We live in a “let’s all be positive and happy” world. Positive Thinking is a massive world-wide industry, powered by motivational speakers, writers and psychologists. And the pharmaceutical industry merrily manufactures “happy pills” and skips all the way to the bank.
I was interested to read in the Mail & Guardian last week an article called, “Punching a hole in positivity”, which tells of a new movement exploring the upside of negativity. The article quoted studies that warned against “Prozac leadership” in business, and describes how “it promotes artificial happiness and discourages critical reflection, leaving companies ill-equipped to deal with setbacks”. It has been suggested that much of the economic meltdown around the world has been caused or exacerbated by such “Prozac leadership”. Risk takers are not challenged, and whistle blowers are denounced.
In the same way, we silence negative thoughts or uncertainty in our personal lives. Which isn’t really surprising. Newspapers and magazines (and a plethora of books) encourage us with a daily stream of headlines such as ‘10 ways to happy’ or ‘Five things you can do to get happy’. And it’s all sold as a “one-size-fits-all cure for every problem.” Even though each of us is different in the way we experience pain and heartbreak and life itself.
And we in the church do the same thing. Only, for us, it becomes a moral or spiritual issue as well. The way we worship, the way we speak to each other, suggests that unhappiness is a lack of faith; anger means you don’t believe in God; depression is a sin.
I’m not encouraging moaning and whining. Let’s be clear; people who find fault with everyone and everything drain us as they have drained themselves. There are people who are unsuccessful and blame everyone else but themselves. There are those who sit around and complain instead of finding ways to make their own and other people’s lives better.
But we in the church often begin to resemble what someone called “motivational rah-rah speakers.” The cheerleader-types who say, “Jump up and down, hug your neighbour,” and then they walk away. James warned us in James 2:16: “What good is it to say to fellow Christians who are hungry and without clothes, ‘God bless you! Stay warm and eat well!’ if we don’t give them the necessities of life.” He may well have said, “What good is it to say to those in pain, and angry with God, ‘Be happy! Stay positive!’ if we are not willing to share their pain and hear their anger?
Don’t get me wrong. Motivation is a good thing, and looking for the positive in things is helpful. President Obama’s 2008 slogan, “Yes! We can!” was a great idea. But what if, in this situation, in this person’s life we just…can’t?
I want to say two things as we share in the sacrament of Holy Communion. It’s a word to those of us who tend towards the “rah-rah” type, and want everyone to smile and be happy all the time, those of us who are uncomfortable with expressions of fear and uncertainty and anger against God. And it’s a word to those who are struggling with life or with a particular issue, and don’t know how to express it, or feel you’re not allowed to express it, and shouldn’t even feel it.
Read the Psalms
First of all, I want to say, read the Psalms. Read the Psalms. You will find in them an expression of all our human emotions, positive and negative. And you will discover there that God is not shocked; God hears it all. He loves to hear his people pray from the heart. And remember the psalmists weren’t mavericks on the edge of society. These were the hymns that God’s people sang.
There is Psalm 22, a cry of anguish that Jesus himself used in his agony on the cross, and Psalms 35 and 42. Often beautiful expressions of praise and adoration come at the end of a Psalm that begins with agony and anguish, as in Psalms 28 and 130. It’s as if the psalmist is saying, work through your agony in openness and honesty with God; tell him how you are feeling, and he will break through. Even the confidence of Psalm 34 is tinged with the reality of the psalmist’s own pain.
And then there is Psalm 137—a terrible cry, in which there is no hope and no pity; a Psalm so awful that you’ll never hear it all read out in church. Read the Psalms.
If you’re tempted to stop people expressing fear and anguish and pain and anger towards God, read the Psalms. If you are worried that God won’t listen to your fears and anger, read the Psalms. In them you will discover that God hears his people: happy or sad, high or low, ‘yes we can’ or ‘no we can’t’, God hears his people’s cry.
The second thing I want to point out to you is about Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus was blind. You knew that. But when Bartimaeus called out to Jesus outside Jericho on the road to Jerusalem, Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” No one seems to have said to Jesus, “Him? But he’s blind!”
And no one went to Bartimaeus and said, “Hey, Jesus is calling you. You’d better stop being blind, so you can go and talk to him.”
They said, “Hey! Get up; he’s calling you.”
The Communion we celebrate tonight is an expression of Jesus’s presence, and of his call to us to receive from him forgiveness, and hope and healing. He doesn’t say to us, “Stop being blind and angry, stop being afraid and hurt.” He says “Come.” He invites us as he invited Bartimaeus, blind and dirty from the roadside. And to those of us who can see he says, “Bring him, bring her.” Bring those who are hurting and can’t see the way forward. Bring those outside in the community. But be warned, as we search for ways to reach out into the community around us, those whom we will meet there are hurting, angry and afraid. Our job isn’t to fix that; it’s simply to meet them, and bring them to Jesus.
There is healing here; there is hope as we gather around this table. For some, it will be like scales falling from their eyes, as it was for Bartimaeus. But for most of us who come here, it is the beginning of a journey, as Bartimaeus also discovered. And if we bring each other to this feast, we will be able to share that journey together.
A sermon preached at Prestbury Methodist Church on 28 October 2012
Scripture: Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-8 (19-22); Mark 10:46-52