Summary: As part of a family of faith, Christians need to realize that we can be honest with God and with one another about just how difficult life can sometimes be.
Pretending Everything is Okay / Psalm 137
Proper 22, Year C; Downsville Baptist Church; 7 October 2001
One of the biggest grievances that I presently hold against many churchgoers is the notion that it is important that we act like everything is just fine in our lives even when it is not. Somewhere hidden in the recesses of our religious history, we have gotten the idea that being a good Christian means that we smile a lot, that we are always really nice, that we never go through really difficult times and if we do we must pretend like we are fine and okay with everything lest someone accuse of having a weak faith or pitying ourselves. Because of this mind-set in which we have made being a good Christian synonymous with pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, we fail miserably in being true ministers in the name of Jesus Christ to those who suffer through some of the most difficult tragedies and sufferings.
About three years ago, I had my father preach for me one Sunday morning while I was away at a conference. Since my father is a hospital chaplain, he is daily surrounded by people who are suffering. In one day, my Dad might minister to a family who has just lost a child while simultaneously being responsible for securing organ donation. Meanwhile, he must look after a woman who is about to become a widow after losing her partner of 50 years. In the evenings, he tries to figure out how to comfort a family who has just discovered that their teenage son had been drinking and killed himself and two others in a car accident. One night, my father was even responsible to try to calm down two warring gangs outside the hospital doors after a fatal drive-by shooting had cost both groups to lose friends and they were angry and ready to wipe out even more of the opposite side. I mention all of that to you because when my father preaches, he usually makes his listeners travel with him into some of the darker valleys we will all at one time or another traverse. That’s why I don’t know if I was more shocked, angry, or actually tickled when after that Sunday on which my father filled in for me, I had a church member come by who was very upset at the language my father had used. I asked what had happened to which I received the following answer, “Well, Bro. Jason, your father was talking about how sometimes life gets really, really hard and said that sometimes the teenagers even say that life sucks . . . .” The look on my face must have given away that I didn’t quite understand what had offended this man so bad. “Sucks, Bro. Jason, your father said that sometimes life sucks. What do you think we should do about that?” Since you’ll never meet this guy, I guess I can tell you his name—Donnie. “Well, Donnie,” I replied, “Don’t you think that sometimes life is a pretty sorry deal.” “Well sure,” Donnie replied, “but I’d never say that life sucks.” “Me either, Donnie,” I finally answered. “To tell you the truth, when life gets really ugly sometimes, I’d probably use even stronger language. How about you?” “Well, yeah, preacher,” Donnie said starting to break a smile, “but you don’t think we should talk about life like that in church, do you?” I told Donnie I couldn’t think of any better place than church to talk about life and what it’s really like. Life is too hard for God’s children to spend Monday through Saturday trying to figure out the best way to cope with some of their darker days all by themselves and then come together into their supposed community of faith and support and have to act like life is wonderful because we’ve somehow adopted the misconception that “Good Christians smile, laugh, and say all is great; bad Christians frown, cry, and admit that life ain’t so great.”
So many of the psalms we find in our Bibles are often overlooked because they are honest enough to say that sometimes things in life aren’t okay. In fact, sometimes life is miserable. Israel has been captured by Babylon and the first four verses express just how depressing and hopeless a situation this is. The Hebrews have been drug away from their homes, and those taking them to a foreign land where they shall be slaves have decided to stop by a river to rest. As the conquered Hebrews look at the water flowing down a river other than their precious Jordan, the water begins to flow from their tired eyes. They cry and they groan because they remember Zion, the place where they had been one with God and all was right in the world . . . at least their world. The Babylonians decide to ridicule their new slaves. “Sing us the songs of Zion. Sing us the songs of your homeland. Sing us your happy songs. Sing us songs about your God who protects you and loves you.” Maybe we would be inspired if the psalmist declared to us that they picked up their harps and began singing in unison the 23rd psalm, that they were going to praise God and endure this valley of the shadow with smiles upon their faces. Well maybe, the 137th psalm is not meant to inspire us. Perhaps it is intended to remind us just how dark the valleys of the shadow sometimes are. One of England’s finest preachers was C.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892). Frequently during his ministry he was plunged into severe depression, due in part to gout but also for other reasons. In a biography of the "prince of preachers", Arnold Dallimore wrote, "What he suffered in those times of darkness we may not know...even his desperate calling on God brought no relief. ’There are dungeons’, he said, ’beneath the castles of despair.’" We need more Christians like Spurgeon who will be honest with us about the experience of despair rather than simply sugar-coating others’ sadness with phrases like “Smile. Jesus loves you.”