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The Rev. Benno Pattison The Rev. Benno Pattison
The Rev. Benno Pattison is the rector of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Atlanta, GA.

Member of:

The Episcopal Church

Representative of:

Church of the Epiphany, Atlanta, GA


Out of the Depths

Psalm 130

Proper 14 - Year B

August 09, 2009

Her keening came from the depths.  I had never heard a sound like it, nor have I heard a sound like it since.  She walked to the coffin and looked in on her beloved son and wailed, a deep primordial call to God, to the ancients, to her child--to the still, cold body.  She called from out of her depths.

It was an awesome auditory experience.  To hear my grandmother's wailing over my Dad's lifeless body was to hear an ancient tongue speak the mysteries of life--out of the depths.  It silenced us all.  This call comes from the deepest part of our being, a place shared universally in human experience.

The psalmist offers us her lament.  The psalmist gives us permission to be unafraid to wail out to God from our deepest places of grief, anger, fear, frustration.

There is a human truth embedded in the voice of the psalm, the aggrieved, the marginalized.  It is the truth that there is a place in us that speaks in an ineffable tongue, a sighing and groaning, a language of travail that is at once transcendent and imminent, in that it shares the origins, speaks to the mystery of creation itself, of an earth caught in bondage, a creation groaning in travail as the apostle has said, waiting, looking, calling out for redemption, freedom, release.  

The spirit--if not the language of the psalm--articulates both the earthiness of our mortality and the poetic hope of divine presence despite all evidence to the contrary.

This truth is expressed in the Agony of King David as he laments the death of his son.  As fraught as his relationship with his son might have been, upon news that he has died a humiliating death, the King begins to speak from his depths.  He laments.  He wails.  His keening can be heard down the ages.  "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!"  He wishes a substitutionary moment, oh that he could have died instead, a cry for some divine intervention that would preserve the life of his now lifeless boy.

What parent is not stunned into silence at the telling of this story?  What person among us does not cover their ears at the sound of such agony?  Out of the depths David laments the death of his beloved son.

Such grief is too difficult to bear.  As a priest of this church, I have the awesome responsibility, the deep mysterious honor to attend death.  I do so by virtue of my office, as all priests do.  At such times platitudes falter, language stutters, death threatens our capacity to be expressive, to intone our lament, our supplication for the ear, the presence of God. 

When my Dad died, our priest was there.  My brother had just left our home in Augusta, and we were sitting in another room adjacent to where my Dad had spent the last two years of his life slowly dying.  The nurse came out with a shocked look on her face.  I was used to the shocking sorts of things one attends to when someone is severely incapacitated, so I thought it was a run-of-the-mill cleanup, or body repositioning, or technical snafu. 

The nurse had lost her voice.  She looked as if she had just peered into the depths, and she had.  My father was taking his last breaths.  We walked into the room and stood observing the end of a life.  The unspeakable was beckoning us. 

The priest spoke from the depths.  He opened a prayer book lying at the bedside table and began to read the words of the ancients; he began to speak in the tongues of our ineffable elders in the faith, the ones charged with the wisdom of offering prayer from the depths:

God the Father,
Have mercy on your servant.

My father is dying.

God the Son,
Have mercy on your servant.

I am afraid.

God the Holy Spirit,
Have mercy on your servant.

I don't know what to say.

Holy Trinity, one God,
Have mercy on your servant.

Are you there?  Are you listening?

The prayer was mumbled into the silence of our terror, our fear, prayed out of the depths of our tradition, an echo of David's cry to God from the depths, this holy place of deep truth, deep emotion, deep reality.  From this place we stand in our depths and ask, wail, lament, complain, weep, hope--God, are your there?  God, are you listening?  I am speaking from the depths.  It is our most holy place for conversation with God.

It would be disingenuous of me, and a disservice to the voice of the psalm, if I ended here with the keening and the wailing.  The depths hold all of our deepest truths and these are not limited to grief and longing, tragedy and travail.  As much as we may posit grief and tragedy to be a universal human phenomenon that provokes conversation with God from our depths, so too the psalmist's voice holds up for us another element of the depths that provokes a conversation to see God in the midst of the mind numbing mendacity of life, a life that often seems too full of nothing but a banal existence punctuated by death. 

I lived on an elbow-shaped curve when I first moved to Atlanta.  My house was right in the elbow and I could see my front yard every day as I returned home.  On one such occasion I saw from the top of the hill my boy Luke, who was about 6 at the time, and his neighborhood friend strutting around the front yard.  They seemed to be swatting and pumping the air with their fists.  My first thought was that they were being attacked by a host of yellow jackets.  As I neared, I saw that one was wearing an old top hat, and the other a crown.  I noticed that they were marching, knees up and in a gently choreographed pattern.  One was moving their hand back and forth in front of their face while the other had hands out to the side and was wildly gesticulating with her fingers.  I was intrigued.

I got out of the car and asked, "Luke, what are you all doing?"  They stopped as if I had uttered heresy.  He looked at me, incredulousness descending on his face.  "Pop, can't you see?"

I couldn't.  He noticed.  "I am playing a trombone, and she is playing the flute. We are in a parade." 

Out of the depths holy imagination dares to see what is unseen.  Out of the depths holy imagination makes extraordinary what is ordinary.  Out of the depths Jesus feeds the multitudes, gives sight to the blind, sets the prisoner free.  Out of the depths my boy was the leader of the band.  Out of the depths a disenfranchised black minister of a Baptist church in Atlanta, Georgia, sets a nation on fire for justice and truth.  Out of the depths the people of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire see God at work in a gay priest and consecrate him Bishop. 

Out of the depths we proclaim Alleluia.  Christ is risen on Easter morning; God with us at the Feast of the Incarnation; your sins are forgiven in the reconciliation of a penitent; I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord at the burial of the beloved.  

Out of the depths the psalmist tells the sacred story of our human experience.  We speak the ineffable holy language of grief and fear, hope and promise.  It is the place of our most sacred and honest conversation with God.  From your depths keen and wail in the face of death and torment.  From your depths hope and dream a parade resplendent and glorious in the face of an ordinary day.  Out of the depths.  Amen.

Let us pray.

Grant to us, Lord we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.  Amen.

 

 

 


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