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The Rev. Joy Yee The Rev. Joy Yee

The Rev. Joy Yee is senior pastor of Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco, CA, and a former moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

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Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church


Prayers from the Pit

Psalm 79

Proper 20 - Year C

May 21, 2006

Prayers from the pit of life are a part of the life of faith.

* Pit prayer addresses God.
* Pit prayer can express double-mindedness.
* Pit prayer expresses our honest (positive and negative) desires and submits them to God.
* God can handle the pits.
* Pit prayer can lead us to a new orientation.

There is a wall plaque hanging in our house with these words, "The joy of the Lord is your strength." I like those words. They are a positive reminder of God in our lives and the faith that we have in him to be our strength at all times.

Many such encouraging words can be found in the Bible, particularly in the book of Psalms. Perhaps you have underlined some of them--words like "I will praise you forever for what you have done; in your name I will hope, for your name is good." (52:9) "For this God will be our guide for ever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end." (48:14)

Here are words to strengthen us and carry us through all the days of our lives--words promise and words of God's goodness. The Psalms are a treasure of such hope and faith. Basically we have here 150 prayers that were used by the people of faith long ago in their communication with God.

For most of us, we are more familiar with the psalms that express thoughts on the reliability and trustworthiness of God, psalms that express a faith in the promises that help us to navigate all of our anxieties and doubts. Life is more black and white because there is a God to call on, so in that reality, troubles are given a context and struggles are settled. Theologian Walter Brueggemann calls these psalms of orientation because they "remind us of the order and reliability of our faith."

But then there are those psalms that don't quite fit this category. And they wouldn't necessarily be the ones you would choose to put on a plaque. Psalm 79 is a troubling prayer. At first glance it appears that these people don't have a clue about being good, faithful people of God. They express thoughts of outrage and a strong desire for revenge upon their enemies. Is God OK with all this venomous language?

Before we go any further, let's back up a bit. The context for this prayer is a situation where Israel's main temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed. Just as the World Trade Center was a physical reminder and center for the United States' economic power, the Temple in Jerusalem was the absolute core and center of Israel's religious life. The temple was the place where Yahweh resided; it was the physical structure that gave meaning and an anchor for Israel's faith life.

For the temple to be destroyed was a desecration, an abomination that unraveled everything. The feelings that the act engendered in the people would be somewhat like how a patriot would feel if the flag of his country were dragged through the mud and then burned. Or how scholars and teachers would feel if the books in the world were piled at the center of town and burned. To catch a glimpse of the horror and sense of coming undone that Israel was experiencing, imagine for a moment something that you hold most precious and dear in your life. It might be a dream or an ideal, it might be your family or way of life. And then picture that core of your life being dashed and destroyed by others.

There are times in life when we are thrown into the pit and everything we have built our lives and understandings on comes undone. These things happen literally: Your home is invaded and trashed and you lose everything. Or they happen in less physical ways: A relationship is violated, a job is lost, a medical diagnosis is made.

In any case, the cause for this prayer from the pit is the destruction of what has been core in Israel's life. But here's the thing we want to look at today. Israel does not abandon God in the pit. Israel continues to fling out a prayer from the pit. And it's not a plaque prayer. It's a pit prayer.

Sometimes we can start to believe that faith should only be positive and that to acknowledge or embrace negativity somehow shows evidence that we are not really people of faith. Perhaps for some of us it doesn't seem right that Christians should express any kind of ugly thoughts or negative feelings. We are supposed to love God and love our neighbors, not question God or ask him to kill our enemies.

But here is Israel, praying a somewhat ugly prayer that has no redeeming social value and it's in the Bible! It's brutal, it's kind of hateful, it's negative, and it is speech that says, "This is how life really is." It is pit prayer.

In Israel's faith and in her conversations with God, nothing is out of bounds. Everything in the human experience belongs in the communication with God. It is a faith that says- "We have to deal with the world as it really is" and the whole spectrum of human life is OK to bring to God. If you read through the psalms (not just the nice ones), you begin to notice that Israel does not withhold any part of life from God. Israel presents her faith and her doubt, her faith and her questions, her joys and her brutalities, her positive desires and her negative desires. Israel does not tell herself that revenge is not a nice thing to ask for. Israel just honestly lays that ugly desire before God.

In essence, even pit prayer is a bold expression of faith. Because Israel completely committed to the idea that whatever can be said about the human condition must be said directly to the God who is Lord of our human experiences and who works with us in it. Israel brings everything into the presence of God regardless of whether it is polite or civil.

This is the kind of prayer that most of us shy away from. We would probably like our faith to travel from strength to strength. But Israel (and God!) invite us today to faith in and prayer to a God who is right there in the room with us, listening to the ugliness, the weakness and the darkness when it rises up within us.

Let's look specifically at what Israel prays. First, pit prayer addresses God. People who do not have a faith turn away from God in the pit--like a hurt and angry spouse who leaves the room in the middle of an argument to choose isolation. But those who are in the pit can choose to address God even with all the negativity, and this is exactly what Israel does. Because they believe that he is the only one who can make a difference in this situation. In their conversation with God they show us the God they believe in. He expresses jealous wrath (5) and anger (6). They believe that he is also compassionate (8) and their glorious savior (9). They believe that he has the right and power to take vengeance (10, 11) and make everything OK again.

What they want is for God to show himself as he really is to all peoples, enemies included. Israel is hurting and a great wrong has been committed. And in this prayer Israel has the faith that God is someone who has it within his nature to be angry with evil, powerful enough to deal with it, and compassionate enough to do it in his wisdom. Pit prayer addresses God as the only one who can actually do something about the situation without and within us.

Second, pit prayer can express double-mindedness. It is ironic that the same people who are asking God to destroy their enemies seven times over expect him to be merciful to them, forgive them and save them. There is an irony here, but this is how it really is with us, isn't it? Soldiers about to face combat in the war in Iraq prayed for victory even as they prayed that God would forgive them for what they were about to do. We can spend our time ridiculing and scoffing at Israel and the soldiers and anyone else who is so double-minded in their prayers, or we can acknowledge that pit prayer is about how it really is with us. And sometimes we are filled with contradictions and quandaries. Pit prayer can express double-mindedness; it gives all of the contradictions of our human hearts to God because there is no one else who can take care of the whole mess, sort it out and bring good from it.

When the center of our lives has fallen down, when the temple is destroyed, when something core within us has been torn down, it is extremely difficult to want only one thing. We have to be truthful with ourselves. There are those times when we want what is right, and we want what is not right at exactly the same time. So Israel asks God for forgiveness for herself and vengeance upon her enemies. And Israel trusts God to sort out the mess.

Pit prayer addresses God. Pit prayer can be double-minded. And here's the thing: Pit prayer is honest enough and faithful enough to express all these positive and negative thoughts and submit them to God. We have to be willing to express all of our yearnings, no matter how ugly or inappropriate or contradictory or impolite and un-Christlike they may be. But not just express the thoughts--and this is the key--but also submit those thoughts to God.

Those two things need to happen in the pit if we are to remain healthy as humans and vital in our faith. We need to express our yearnings and submit them to God. Israel does just that. She does not hold back any thoughts. She unleashes the expression of everything she is feeling and thinking and wanting. But, also, all those desires are submitted to God. Israel lets God enter into the conversation and work within all the pit realities to save them.

Because God can handle the pits. If someone has wronged us, sometimes the prayer cannot be "Lord, help me forgive him and love him" until it has first been, "Lord, I hate him and never want to see him again." That ugly but honest feeling must be expressed and submitted to God so that he can receive it and return it back to us redeemed. Nothing in Israel's prayer is toned down or made diplomatic for God's sake. Israel believes strongly that God will pay attention and has the ears to hear, without being scandalized. And because Israel believes that God can handle the pits--he who is strongly compassionate and strongly against evil--is the only one who can wisely and effectively deal with their desire for vengeance.

Just because we might feel a desire for vengeance and ask for it does not mean that God will act the way we would act. The Lord says, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." But if we are to judge God's nature by the person of Jesus Christ, then any picture we have of God paying back seven times needs to be fleshed out with Jesus' command to forgive 70 times 7. We can trust God with judgment and justice infinitely more than with our sense of those things. God's judgment and God's grace are two sides of the same coin. God will take care of things and he will do it completely right.

We do not pray to a God who stayed far away in heaven. We have a God who came down to earth and climbed right into the pit with us. We might have run away with our negativity and ugliness, choosing our sin and isolation, choosing to be separate from God.

But here is truth: God came after us. He came after us and he climbed into the muck and mire of all our pride and hatred, our petty differences and soul killing ambitions, our desires for power and vengeance. Jesus came after us and he walked with us in the pit and he never told us to make ourselves worthy of his love. He just said that he loved us, and he put his hands on our blind eyes and our dirty feet. He fed us abundance from nothing. He spoke words of forgiveness and assurance. He gave us a picture of heaven and told us that there are many rooms there and that there is a room for each one of us in his house and at his banquet table. He died for our sake and he came back to life. And he did all these things right in the very depth and blackness and ugliness of the pit.

Pit prayer is not polite or pretty or even socially redeemable, but it is the honest beginning of acknowledging life as it really is and as it really can be. And God is right there in the pit with us. There is nothing that we need to censor or hide or try to ignore with more pious words in our prayer.

Our faith does not just have to embrace the positive. Our faith can also embrace the negative. Pit prayer unleashes everything of the human experience into the hands of a sovereign God. Pit prayer addresses God. It can be double-minded at times because we are double-minded at times. Pit prayer expresses all of this and submits it to God, the only one who can do anything about it.

From the muck and mire of the pit we are not alone. And because God has promised to be with us always even to the end of the age, may the whole spectrum of prayers be heard by God, spoken boldly, faithfully, honestly by his people -

* "Lord, take vengeance and right all wrong."
* "Help us, O God our Savior; deliver us and forgive our sins."
* "Make all things right-with our enemies and with us."
* "Father, have mercy on us!"
* "Lord, we believe, help our unbelief!"

Then we, your people, the sheep of your pasture will praise you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise!

Let's pray.
Our Lord and Savior, you see us clearly and you love us unconditionally. Help us to trust you with everything that we are. Thank you for your faithfulness to us and your grace which makes us whole. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.


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