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Pentecost 12 B

“De Profundis: Songs from the Depths” 

Psalms 42, 130

by Rev Elisabeth R Jones

Over the past four weeks now,
we have been exploring the songbook of Scripture,the Psalms.
We discovered what every music lover knows:
songs have the capacity to spin the merely spoken word into a
silken web  that captures every experience known to human creation,
spinning it into the song of the soul.
Songs give voice to the unspoken, the unutterable,
to lift us to the heights of ‘useless’ unconditional praise and exquisite joy,
as we saw the first week of our exploration.
Songs also sing worlds yet to come
into the present tense of our imagination and longing,
as we saw with Psalm 19.
They also have the capacity to drum out the
discordant outrage of a world gone wrong,
as we discovered in Ps 74.
And today, as we’ve already seen in the songs we’ve just sung,
they have the capacity to drive us deep into the wells of our own unknowable grief.

These are dangerous ditties, disoriented and disorienting, and even opening the page to look at them may dislodge for someone here a buried sadness that needs to be heard.
I want to encourage you, if that happens, not to suffer alone,
but to seek support, from me or our pastoral care team, or a trusted

But explore them we will, for they contain buried treasure, a gift,
a wrestled blessing,
if we, will as the poet David Whyte urges
“slip beneath the still surface of the well of grief,
turning downward through the black water
to the place we cannot breathe
[until we discover] the source from which we drink.”1

These songs, like those for a world gone wrong,
disclose to us a recurrent redemptive  pattern.
Even in these deeply intimate, secret songs of sadness,
we can discern the same warp  of faithful lament,
upon which the weft of our honest complaint
is woven,  creating unique colours and patterns of sadness,
but always on the framework  we see here:
1. Address to God
2. Honest complaint
3. Petition
4. Because you are God
5. Vengeance? or Justice
6. Remembrance/praise

It’s like a loom upon which  the original psalmist,
and now we can weave honest words
addressed to God (1)
the whole truth of our complaint: (2)
our illness, our oppression, our guilt,
our hopelessness, our longing,  our isolation,
whatever it may be,
in order that God will do something: (3)
lift up the downtrodden nobody from the depths,
restore the thirsty one to a place of belonging and nurture,
mend the broken relationship, heal the weary bones,
the cancer, the hip, the heart
silence the injustice, or the fault-finder, or the oppressor,
forgive the wrong done, restore us to the company of the living,
fill our loneliness with  healing presence, any presence,
a touch,  a phone call,
feed our empty belly, or heart, or soul,
restore, God willing, the tiny seed of hope….

Because, that is who God is, and what God does. (4)
I remember saying from this pulpit last fall
that the overarching testament, or witness of the writers of Scripture,
from Genesis to Revelation, and including these songs from the depths,
is that God’s nature is  expressed as

“God’s active,  passionate, eternal commitment
to create, to heal, to renew, to forgive, to rescue,
to protect, to sustain, to uphold,
to be in relationships that heal the weakest and most vulnerable.”2
(5) On this warp, this framework of the Psalms of Lament,
even our anguished cry for vengeance is redeemed
into a cry for justice, the righting of wrongs,
the sharing of burden,
the experience by oppressors of the boot of their own oppression,
a song to silence the taunting and jeering
if only God will act upon God’s commitment
to help those who cannot help themselves.

(6) Now, here’s the rub.  In a sermon, or a TV drama,
dilemmas are resolved in 11 minutes, or  27, or 54.
Marriages are mended, the bad guys are arrested,
hurts are healed in the time it takes for a kettle to boil.
But we know fine well life’s not like that.
Life’s pains have more patience than we do,
last longer than we think we can endure.

So this last move of the psalms to remembrance and praise
looks at first blush as trite as a B movie plotline.
However, this is where the sober marvel of these songs becomes apparent:
the times of torment are contracted to a span of verses, yes,
but look at how they do it:
they sing sighs too deep for words,
they hold the minor key until the breath runs out,
they chant the monotone hopeless endurance of one who counts
every sleep-defying minute of the night watch,
they are drenched with the tears that fill nights of lament,
they whisper with the hoarse voice of one whose cries are met with silent deafness,
they pant with the thirst of a deer in a dry and weary land
that hasn’t seen rain for years.
They leave nothing out. Not even the exhaustion of waiting for relief.

But then they press on, and are determined to sing us to a place of newness
we are not yet ready for.
“How can we praise you God, yet?
When you’ve yet to hear, to respond,
to touch, to heal?”
And yet these songs surge forward beyond our anger, our pain,
to a destiny of redemption that is assuredly ours,
perhaps not yet, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps in life beyond this one.
But the song always gets there.

I recall a professor of mine speaking of the role of hymnody in the life of the community of faith.
The act of singing together creates a protected space
in which the community collectively
can sing  for us the words that we still cannot.
Some of us are caught in verse 1, the complaint, the anguish, the grip of the unresolved.
Others of us have walked further along the shadowed valley, and can sing verse 2, or even 3,
and we are carried by their voices towards a place of hope, or the anticipation of it.

If I may, I recall the moment when this happened most powerfully for me.
I was in Seminary, and I had just received personal news that shattered my world.
Two days later, I went to the weekly Seminary chapel service, because that’s what one did,
but I was privately, secretly bruised in soul,  numb, hopeless.
We sang a psalm.
A lament song.
Psalm 130,
“Out of the Depths I cry, to you, O God.
Hear my voice in this distress.”
That was as far as I got.
My tears started, and my voice stopped.
But the community carried on singing,
probably oblivious to the trainwreck
happening in their midst.
“I wait for God with all my heart,
my hope is in God’s promise sure.”
They sang. I couldn’t. Not yet.
I wasn’t ready for hope, I was still finding the words, and the courage
to voice my lament, my complaint, my pain, my ‘why?’
But the community of faith carried on, and they carried me.
“O People of God, wait in hope,
for with God there is love unfailing.”

Until I could sing my secret sadness to God,  others sang it for me.
Until I could find my own words for my complaint and prayer,
I found them written in tears on parchment, in the book of Psalms,
taking me to the well of grief, until,
like the deer, I could drink from the source of my salving.

This is their gift to me, and God willing,
I hope these songs of sadness,
sung in the company of fellow travellers on the road of faith
become gift to you too.


© Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones,  August 2012

1 David Whyte, Where Many Rivers Meet.
2 See “Dilemma and Promise” Aug 14, and “Burning Bushes and Broken Bread” Aug 28, 2011.

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