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"Passionate Prayer" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - September 4, 2016

posted Oct 19, 2016, 8:22 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Few scriptures are as familiar to me as the first eighteen verses of the Psalm [139] we heard this morning.  The language and phrases shape my own prayers.  “You hem me in, behind and before.”  “Where can I go from your spirit?” “I am wonderfully, fearfully made.”

And yet as familiar as those verses are to my heart, I often treat the end of the Psalm as if it didn’t exist.  “I hate them with a perfect hatred.”  It’s as if those words come from another Psalm, or even another book.  We rarely read them in church and I never think of them in my prayer life.

But there they are, cheek to jowl with my most precious verses in the Bible.  I am wonderfully, fearfully made.  I hate them with a perfect hatred.

What are we to make of this Psalm with its beauty and hatred?  Can the whole Psalm teach us something about prayer?

I had Heather read the “hatred” verses separately from our responsive reading of the Psalm because I just couldn’t bring myself to ask you to say the words yourselves.  And that hesitation on my part tells me something about the difference between our prayers today and those in the Bible.  Our prayers, my prayers from the pulpit certainly, are more sanitized than those in the Psalms.  The Psalms speak with an urgency, a vulnerability, and a raw energy that we rarely use in public prayer.

Hatred is an emotion tapping into all of that energy.   It overwhelms; which is why it can be scary and dangerous.  It comes as an out-of-control emotion, sometimes surprising us with its force, and expressing deep emotions of fear, revulsion, and disgust.

In comparison, our prayers, or at least my prayers, are often much more restrained than the explosion of emotion we find at the end of the psalm.  I’m not suggesting that our prayers now have to become tirades and rants; but we could be more raw in what we say to God.

We talk in our congregation of developing passionate prayer.  This psalm, despite the ways in which its extremes of language may make us uncomfortable, can teach us something about passion with which we can pray.

Of course, when someone is so angry as to have a ‘perfect hatred,’ we want to know why they feel such hatred.  Or when we’re so angry we only see red, what makes us feel that way?

Biblical scholars sometimes try to reconstruct the context which gave birth to a passage.  Some people theorize that a person falsely accused of a crime wrote this psalm.  The theory partly comes from the fact that so many psalms speak about the “evil-doers” who make false claims.  In this psalm we hear of “those who speak maliciously and lift themselves up for evil.”  

In the midst of injustice, the person called for God to act. “O that you would kill the wicked, O God.”  Read this way, the verses shout graphically to God, “thy will be done.”  Such a shout comes from a heart deeply troubled by injustice and oppression, “that the bloodthirsty would depart from me.”

Have you ever felt that desperation?  Experienced malicious gossip?  Felt as if the world itself stood against you?  Suffered so much it made you scream?

I hear the intense anger of the psalm differently if it’s the voice of an innocent person falsely accused or a person torn by oppression; the perfect hatred makes perfect sense.

But it does more than that.  It actually helps me understand the whole of the poem better.  I’ve come to see the desperate hurt expressed as perfect hatred to be the key to understanding the rest of the psalm.

The first eighteen verses - what we normally read - speak to an amazing sense of God’s transcendence, God’s greatness, but also God’s immanence, God’s presence.

It begins, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up;  you discern my thoughts from far away.”  This prayer speaks to God’s complete and intimate knowledge of the person praying.  And this pattern of “you” and “me” continues throughout the psalm.  It’s why some say this psalm is the most introspective prayer in the Bible.

These verses about God’s great and intimate knowledge of us comfort.  And yet, underneath them there are notes of tension and apprehension.  “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.”  Being known completely, being known in all our vulnerability, being known stripped of all our pretensions leaves us wanting a fig leaf.

The theme of God’s greatness and presence continues.  “Where can I go from your spirit?”  I’ve used these lines in prayers in hospitals and prisons, death beds and any time of uncertainty.  “Where can we go from God’s spirit?”  The psalm speaks to God’s abiding presence - no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, God will be there with us.

Again, the idea God will never abandon us comforts.  And yet, one can sense an almost claustrophobic reaction to the inescapable God.  For God sounds like the Eye of Sauron, a divine NSA, or an unshakable stalker.  “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”

For the third time the prayer names the greatness and presence of God.  And now we might sense the pattern to these reaffirmations.  Each time the prayer states in even more emphatic ways the power and presence of God.  This time, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Still that anxiety - fearfully, wonderfully made.

These words felt like a lifeline for me when I was coming out.  I didn’t even understand myself, or my feelings, but this psalm promised God did.  I lost friends when I came out, even any semblance of a relationship with one of my brothers.  I heard a lot of opinions about what it meant for me to be gay.  In the midst of that hard time, I heard God’s word in this psalm: I created you with a purpose.  

It gave me the confidence, shaky at first, but the confidence to live without fear.  And that’s what I hear in the psalm. Any apprehension about God becomes resolved in a moment of pure peace.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!

  How vast is the sum of them!

I try to count them—they are more than the sand;

  I come to the end—I am still with you.

Only at this highest moment of trust and confidence - “I come to the end - I am still with you” - can the psalmist turn to face the unspoken anger.  

I don’t think I would have understood this connection between security and frustration before I had children.  But it’s easy to see this dynamic with small kids.  They’re angels with strangers.  But at home, tantrums.  I read once that we ought not to worry; kids only do that when they feel secure in your love.  I’m finding it’s also true of teen attitude.  The kid who’s a model employee complains through every chore at home.  

So it comes as no surprise that the psalm moves from a profound statement of truth to naming the lurking anger in the heart.

The psalm peeled back the onion layers until this was revealed - a desperate frustration.  Such moments of revelation, when they come, can be deeply cathartic.  Now the burden silently carried is named; now the secret told; now the dragon released.

Nothing in the psalm suggests the person acted out their anger.  No: it’s all introspective, the internal monologue, or as one person said, the inward odyssey.  

The psalm ends with a sense of relief, a surrender, and willingness to let go of the anger and to move into God’s future, whatever that may be.  “See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

This week, I ask you to try Psalm 139 as a prayer discipline.  Pray through the first eighteen verses.  Let those words bring comfort to your heart.  And then listen - meditate, silently - to what lies deep in your heart.  Name any dragons there; and let them go.  Face any burdens; and set them down.  Acknowledge the secret hurts; and let them heal.  And then close by speaking aloud the final verse, “and lead me in the way everlasting.”  In this way we can all grow in our practice of passionate prayer.

Alleluia and Amen.