Sometimes I use curse words when I pray.

The title of this blog is from the song “Me and God” by The Avett Brothers. The song itself is fun but not wholly relevant to this post. I just like that line.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Wild Goose Festival in Chatham County, North Carolina. Wild Goose is “a festival at the intersection of justice, spirituality, music and art” that takes place over 4 days in June. You’re encouraged to camp. Tick checks are just one more means of building Christian community.

At the Saturday morning opening session, we were asked to read and reflect on Psalm 137 in small groups. It’s a gut-wrenchingly sad lament of Israel’s exile in Babylon. But what most people hone in on—and what the United Methodist Hymnal’s psalter leaves out—are the final lines, directed at their captors:

Happy shall they be
who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

It’s no surprise this psalm is often shortened for use in worship. How can anyone who believes that God is love pray something like that?

The thing is, the fact that God is love is the very reason we can pray this psalm—and the very reason we are free to offer God the sin and evil we experience and commit daily.

The psalms of lament, including those about seeking revenge (sometimes called the imprecatory psalms), cannot be ignored because, as uncomfortable as it is to realize, they are a reflection of human nature. Walter Brueggemann wrote in his book Praying the Psalms that the problem is not that vengeance is in the psalms–the problem is that it is in our own hearts. John Calvin called the psalms an “anatomy of the soul.” Anything that disquiets or offends us there only does so because on some level we know it is a mirror to our broken humanity.

The psalms can help us to face the darkest parts of our humanity strengthened by the knowledge that God has redeemed it and will redeem it. The imprecatory psalms were not intended to lead to violent actions but were a way to take all the rage and sadness the Israelites experienced in exile and hand it over to God. In our reflections at Wild Goose (where the theme was “Exile and Return”), we were asked to consider Psalm 137 as an expression of deep sadness and mourning from a community in exile and to consider who in our world might pray such a prayer today.

Because God is love, God can take up all the pain and hatred in this world and transform it into…well, love. My friend Morgan Guyton recently wrote a blog that dismantles some popular assumptions about God’s nature that make up a theory called penal substitution–including the idea that God is allergic to sin and that God poured out his wrath on Jesus on the cross in some quasi-abusive act of anger.

These attempts to deal with the problem of sin miss the point: only love can bind the wounds of sin. God can handle sin and even, in Jesus, became sin (2 Cor. 5:21). Whatever rage or anger or sadness or hatred we may feel, God’s love takes that on and redeems it. Anger could never do that. In his book Heart of the World, Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, “When God thunders, the cloud of wrath pours out a rustling of love.” Whatever anger our sin might merit, the God who is love approaches it not with wrath but with love–with God’s very self.

Because God is love, and he loves everyone. (See below.)

__________

This post is part of a blogging game with The Creative Collective (though I may be bending the rules by recycling old writing). The topic: “Hatred.” See what others are saying about it here.

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About Sarah S. Howell

I'm interested in worship, the arts, community building, challenging assumptions, and making holy mischief.
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3 Responses to Sometimes I use curse words when I pray.

  1. Pingback: Hatred « The Creative Collective

  2. Morgan Guyton says:

    Thanks for the shout-out. I’m interested in that Balthasar book. Sounds cool. I’m reading Mysterium Paschale right now.

  3. Sarah,
    I was looking for a way to thank you for your article in The Circuit Rider, when I stumbled across this blog on Psalm 137 (which I will be preaching in a couple of Sundays in a series). And, yes, I believe that the heart of this psalm is its last verse. In my wrestlings with this psalm I have come to realize that it doesn’t matter what I “do with” the explosive violence of the last verse. What matters is what the last verse does with me. A very wise man (who happened to have been one of my seminar professors more than a quarter of a century ago) once said, “The psalmist knows that you can say anything, anything at all, as long as you say it to Yahweh.”
    As to your article, you are offering a word of grace to a church that badly needs it. Or at least to those who have noticed that Jesus’ moment of greatest faithfulness was also the nadir of his trajectory of “ministerial effectiveness.” The rest of (at least) the (American) church, and especially its mid- and upper-level managers, remains captive to the ideology of consumer capitalism that equates grow with success. If cancer had an ideology, this would be it.
    Keep pondering, keep going deeper and keep reporting what you see!

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