“Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock?!” Oh dear. Oh no. No, No. Hush. Quiet that voice. Omit that verse. And in a Psalm of all things! Oh my, my. Oh … yes, yes. Yes, today, this is the verse we must encounter. This is a verse we must face. This is a verse with abiding import. So, let’s look, let’s consider, let’s see where the Psalmists’ lament might lead us.
First, let us make no mistake: No, no absolutely not, we unequivocally reject “dashing your little ones against the rock.” And yet, if we step back into the psalmists’ time, we find the wisdom. Sifting through rock and rubble, following biblical scholars and historians into that ancient world, 586 BCE, we find the Jews exiled to Babylonia. Their city was conquered, their sacred temple destroyed; they had withstood despicable treatment and now were exiled, prisoners of war. They lost everything they held dear, all that was familiar, the safety and comfort of home. In that state, to our horror, they believed that the only way, the only possible way to stop evil was to “dash their enemy’s children against the rock,” to stop the family line: to eradicate its biological future. To stop evil, to cut it off at the quick meant stopping its literal rebirth in generation after generation.
And so yes, yes, we agree, we also want to stop evil but as Christians in the twenty-first century, we have different methods. Let’s heed the wisdom of the lament that says NO, no to more violence, no to more exiled, humiliated, abandoned hearts. No, we say, the violence ends here. This violence will not beget more violence. Instead of dashing upon the rocks, we turn to the wisdom of our time, to the living Christ, to the life-giving, radical love we can embody in our lives day after day; to the life-giving radical protest of Christ’s all encompassing love in our time. Here and now, we put an end to the lineage of violence with courage, compassion, creativity, the reverent persistence that stops violence dead in its tracks. As Howard Thurman instructed us all through Lent: Lord, we pray, “Open unto me — light for my darkness. Open unto me courage for my fear. Open unto me love for my hates. Open unto me Thy Self for my self.” So yes, this is the verse, we must encounter.
But there’s more. We’re not done. No, in this lament is our own lament: the sacred lament of the soul. Listen; let’s listen closely to the Psalmists’ plea. Take in her full humanity. She is not polite, neat and tidy, not so “godly.” No he is human as is his exiled community. They are hurt, bewildered, and angry. They have not yet forgiven. The healing has perhaps not yet or only barely begun.
“Happy shall they be,” he laments, “those who pay you back what you have done to us!” This is the broken heart. This is our broken heart. Wide-open. The Lament. The unvarnished, unwashed, unadorned, stark-naked sacred lament.
The gathered community “sat down by the rivers of Babylon” and wept. Exhausted, distraught, they wept and wailed. Bereft, they sobbed and sobbed. “When they remembered Zion,” their lost home, a place of safety and comfort, they wept. This is our grieving heart. Wide-open. The lament, the sacred lament.
Banished to the “willows there,” their exiled hearts broke. Evicted, deported, dismissed, rejected, abandoned, they wept. This is our exiled heart. Wide-open. Our lament.
In a foreign land, they “hung up their harps.” No we will not sing for you. You, “our tormentors ask for mirth – songs of joy,” songs of our homeland?! No, we will not sing the “Lord’s song” for you. No, we will not dance for you. Raw, stubborn, defiant, dishonored, this is our anguished heart. Wide-open. The sacred lament.
Now, the Psalmist alone – the “I.” “If I forget you … If I do not remember you … If I do not set Jerusalem above the highest joy, let my right hand wither, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth.” This is our frozen heart: Numb, paralyzed, shocked, shut down. No, I will not feel. I will not speak. I will not reveal my torment. This is our frozen heart. The lament.
This is the lament of the broken-hearted:
At the finish line
In the storefront, the wheelchair, the stroller
In the ambulance, fire engine, and police cruiser
In the hospital, rehab and waiting room
In the funeral parlor In the lock-down
And yes, in this chapel, in this sanctuary,
in this bell tower And yes, oh yes, on Norfolk Street, Chechnya and yes, the stolen SUV and the bloody, backyard boat.
In the Psalmists’ lament, our own. While we might prefer look away, this is the time to pause, to stop, to step back. The sacred lament.
But the Psalmist and the exiled, gathered community are not alone. This is not an empty lament. This is a lament with a destination. This is a lament they expect to be heard. In that lament, they have opened their broken hearts to God, to the Holy, to the Creator, to the Divine. In that lament, in that anguished plea, that pause – before the fixing and figuring out, before “getting back to normal” – they have turned to the sacred. And into that space, that sacred, holy, broken-hearted space – God’s grace has a chance, a chance to “bind up those wounds.” A chance to acknowledge and accept the depth of suffering, a chance to calm and comfort, a chance to teach, a chance to surprise and delight, a chance to belove and befriend; a chance to accompany and witness. A chance for God’s grace; “guerilla grace,” the poet Ted Loder calls it. God’s grace has its own rhythm, its own meter, its own time.
Knowing this, allowing for this, perhaps we can offer ourselves and each other a wide, wide berth. We often do not know what God’s grace looks like. We do not know the best way for another to grieve, to rage, to heal, to forgive. God’s grace might just be at work.
In the lament, the sacred lament, the reverent pause, the ancient Psalmist leads us into that mystery, into the possibility of that sacred dance with God’s grace. So let us lament. Let us allow for the sacred lament. Let us allow for God’s grace.