Scripture Psalm 13
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Sunday Message: “How Long, O Lord?” Rev. James R. Renfrew, Byron PC
How long, O Lord? Every so often for a Sunday service I get off-track. I turn away from the Gospels of Jesus, his teaching about the sower and the seeds or the miracle of a huge catch of fish. I turn away from the sad story of the Cross and the joyful story of the Resurrection. I go even further off-track, because then I turn away from Paul and his letters to the first generation of Christians in Corinth, Ephesus and Thessalonia. And then I go further off-track by turning away from the well-known Old Testament stories of Noah and the Ark, Abraham and the stars in the sky, Moses and the escape from Egypt.
So now I am way off track, and I look around to see where I am. Where am I? I’m in the Book of Psalms, one hundred and fifty ancient songs of praise and joy, sorrow and lament. The Psalms are different, they usually don’t tell a story like the Gospels or the Old Testament, they don’t address a challenging issue like Paul does in his letters. More than anything else each Psalm describes a feeling, a feeling like joy, sorrow, anger, happiness, hope, or despair. Think of one of your favorite songs, and chances are that your song is all about a feeling, and the song’s feeling matches your feeling. It connects. It just fits. It’s a song all about you.
The problem with the 150 psalms in the Bible is that the music is long gone, no one remembers the tunes or the notes anymore, not surprising for songs that were composed three thousand years ago. Most of the Psalms have been set to modern music, but the original music has been lost. So, to find the feeling in an ancient Psalm is all the more difficult. It takes prayer, reflection, and conversation to discover it. But that’s OK; what I love most about the Bible is finding my way into its truth. It rarely gives me answer right away. I have to search and wrestle with it.
Fortunately, this Psalm 13 is not so elusive, because the feeling is right there, easy to find. Right there in the first two words. “How long?” Sometimes, I read a Psalm and the feeling it lifts up is not the feeling I have that day. But sometimes I read a Psalm and it finds me right where I am, and it’s like the Psalm was written just for me. Psalm 13 is that kind of Psalm.
One time in high school I was reading a science fiction thriller late in the night. I couldn’t put it down, I couldn’t stop turning the pages, I just had to see what would happen next, with the fate of the galaxy in the balance. As events were reaching a critical moment, I turned a page and a new character strode into the scene, a man named James Renfrew, my own name, and at that exact moment a cat shrieked in the darkness outside of my house. I wasn’t reading the story any more, I was IN the story! That can happen in a Psalm, you are reading it and then you realize that you’re in it.
So here we have Psalm 13, and let me tell you that it draws me right in, from the very first two words, “How Long?”. Of course, it’s a common question. I think all of us can recall a child in our lives asking that exact question, how much longer, when will we get there, how long until we arrive? How long? How long until we reach grandma and grandpa’s house? When will we get to our camp site? When will dinner be ready? How many days until my birthday?
So, of course, “how long?” is a child’s question, often asked from the back seat of the family car, but it’s also very much an adult question. And this is where the opening question in Psalm 13 intersects with our lives, where the feeling in the psalmist matches our own feeling. It’s like this Psalm 13 was written for you and me.
How long will in-person church services remain cancelled? How long until a vaccine is developed? How long will we have to keep our distance? How long will we have to wear face masks? This week, in particular, it’s a bigger question. Just when we thought that the curve was flattening in New York State, fewer infections, fewer deaths, fewer risks, the virus seems to be erupting elsewhere, and American travelers are being blocked from entering Europe. Where we had asked “How long?” last week, but feeling optimistic the end might be in sight, now we’re asking again, “How long?”, and the end seems even further away.
And then add all the other “how long” questions: How long will people live in hunger? How long will our country continue to suffer from racism? How long will injustice prevail? How long until wars cease? How long, indeed!
“How long, O Lord?” You see, there’s this: the writer of the Psalm is not just venting frustration, shouting into the wind, or trying to beat back waves with a stick, the writer is singing these words to God to start a conversation. It’s not just a complaint, it’s a prayer, it’s a readiness to talk, to listen, to learn, to grow in our understanding of complicated things, like the times we are in. The Psalmist want us to feel the closeness and attentiveness of God, a God who listens, who cares, who inspires, who asks us in response, “How long will it take for you to join with me?”