A reading and reflection for Monday, December 17, 2012.
The sixteenth day of Advent.
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Psalm 80 NRSV
In this lament psalm, the psalmist cries out on behalf of his people, who are likened to a vine that has been ravaged by wild animals. The pain of this people is so severe that they are metaphorically eating and drinking tears while they are repeatedly victimized by neighbors and enemies. The repeated petition of "restore us, O Lord of hosts, let your face shine, that we may be saved" indicates the way in which the psalmist viewed the connection between humankind and God. When God turns his interests towards humanity, when God metaphorically brightens his face at the people of earth, salvation follows.
It is of note that the psalmist both blames God for their circumstances while also pleading with him for comfort and relief. This tension between accusatory lament, "Why have you broken down its walls?" and reverent petition: "Restore us, O Lord of hosts" is a common theme in the biblical psalms. This tension is a challenge to our society who seems content to either blame God for tragic circumstances, or to plead with God for restoration, but rarely in the same prayer.
When we begin patterning our prayers after the biblical psalms, we find that our prayers will contain both accusation and petition as two sides of the same coin. If God is truly a sovereign God, If God is the "almighty, the king of creation", then it is not incorrect to interrogate God from time to time about the circumstances we are experiencing. Surely God knows, surely God could intervene.
But often we living in Western industrialized societies are too preoccupied with knowledge, we want to know why things happened. It's not enough to blame God, we want to hear from God why he is not doing anything about it. Why did the shooting in Newtown, CT happen? Why an elementary school? Why kindergarten children? We want to know why. We are desperate for rationalization and reasonable explanations. Within 24 hours after the shooting, over 40,000 articles were written on online news media sites, the vast majority probing for an explanation. What caused this absurd act of violence?
The psalmist would critique this obsession with knowledge. It does not fall to the human experience to know "why." Instead of being preoccupied with knowing why, the psalmist is more concerned with pushing God to do something about it. "This is the situation, God," the psalmist essentially says, "we are facing death and destruction all around us. Give us life!" Do something! Save us! Restore us!
The presumption of the psalmist is that if God only knew what his people were enduring, if he turned his face toward them, if his attention was fixed on their suffering, he would relent and restore them. And while we affirm that surely God is aware of the suffering in the world, it often feels like his attention is elsewhere. The psalmist isn't writing doctrine here, but pathos. The suffering of the people has caused the psalmist to question God's awareness of the situation on the ground. It feels like you're looking somewhere else, he might have said. It feels like you're unaware of just how bad it is. Look at us! Just look!
I imagine that's how the families in Newtown are feeling in the wake of Friday's horror. Surely God's attention was elsewhere, surely God wasn't paying attention, surely God wasn't aware of the 20-year old who forced his way into the school and killed 18 kindergarten children. That's how it feels.
And when it feels that dark, when it feels like God's presence is absent, the psalmist encourages us to petition God to occupy that darkness, to stir up his might and turn his attention toward the evil around us.
1. When you pray, do you blame God? Why or why not?
2. Why is it so hard to shift from blame to petition?
3. What are some specific ways you can pray ifor the people in Newtown, CT?
Pray this paraphrased selection from Psalm 80 on behalf of those suffering in Connecticut today.
Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for these families,
the people that your right hand planted.
Evil has burned it with fire, violence has cut down their children;
Therefore, let evil and all its forms perish at the rebuke of your wisdom.
But let your hand be upon these who grieve at your right hand,
these families whom you made strong for yourself.
Then they will never turn back from you;
give them life, and may they call on your name.
Restore them, O LORD God of hosts;
turn your attention toward us again, that we all may be saved.