Given the nature of my work as a pastor, I’ve often expressed frustration that I wasn’t issued a magic wand at my seminary graduation. What a relief it would be, as I sit with people reeling from family stress or job loss, illness or grief, to be able to fix it for them. It’s hard to see people we care about hurting, and not be able to fix it. The list of problems friends and family members and church members are dealing with, ranging from physical illness to tremendous stress and anxiety, or emotional pain? I’m afraid it’s a long list, and I imagine yours is too. Don’t you just want to be able to fix it, sometimes?
I had an opportunity this past year to reconnect with a longtime family friend, someone I knew well as a child, but with whom I’d lost touch over the years. Now nearing retirement, her life’s work has been nursing, and she’s worked in some pretty tough environments. She has devoted her career to caring for AIDS patients, for instance, and to people suffering from drug addiction, and to people experiencing homelessness, and fairly often her patients have been fighting two or even three of those battles at once.
As we talked about this one day, I remember saying that kind of work must be agonizingly hard, because you would always want to fix the situation, but it wouldn’t often be possible to do that. I’ll never forget her reply. “Oh, Deb, I don’t think we can fix people’s lives. We can only let them know they are not alone, they matter, and someone cares. And that is something I genuinely love to do.” Wow.
Because sometimes we can’t fix it. There is no magic wand.
But it is perfectly within my power to convey to someone who is hurting: You’re not alone. You matter. I care.
William Muhl tells of a group of parents waiting in a church hall to pick up their preschool children from just before Christmas:
As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each one carried in his hands a ‘surprise,’ [or treasure], a brightly wrapped [Christmas] package on which he had been working diligently for weeks. One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave, all at the same time, slipped and fell. The [treasure] flew out of his grasp, landed on the floor, and broke with an obvious ceramic crash. The child’s first reaction was one of stunned silence. But [soon he let out] an inconsolable wail. His father, thinking to comfort him, knelt down and murmured, “Now, now [it’s ok]… it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter.” But his mother …swept the boy into her arms and said, “Oh, but it does matter. It matters a great deal.” And she wept with her son.
As we continue making our way through some of the questions you contributed to our “Glad You Asked” sermon series, I wanted next to address the question: “How do we pray, in the midst of so many problems in our world? We’ll begin today with the suffering of those in our immediate circles, because I was also asked the related question “how do we talk about our faith to people we know who are suffering?” It’s easy for us to feel at a loss in these kinds of situations, unsure what to say or how to pray.
First, as we discussed last week, lament can be a powerful form of prayer. It’s perfectly appropriate to sit with someone who is hurting, and to cry out with them prayers along the lines of those we find so often in biblical psalms: “Why, O Lord?” “How long, O Lord?” Maybe we can even encourage them to express their pain to God directly, for we know God invites our honesty, so there’s nothing we could be feeling that is off limits in prayer. Sometimes we might instead pray on their behalf: It’s not fair, God. Enough already. Please, Lord, have mercy. And surely tears can be a form of prayer. As we read in our New Testament lesson from Romans this morning, we are invited to weep with those who weep. Because sometimes any words we could offer would be woefully inadequate.
Speaking of which, I’m sorry to report that Job’s friends get it spectacularly wrong for an awful lot of chapters after the passage we read from the Old Testament this morning. They explain to Job, in quite a long-winded fashion, that he must have done something pretty awful to deserve his ordeal, and that things would start looking up if he’d only just repent. They try to convince him that there is a reason for what he’s going through, and they’ll be happy to help him out by explaining that reason to him.
I don’t need to tell you these are not the most helpful responses to someone who is in pain! Let me show you how this all actually makes sense? Why it’s all for the good? How many of us have been on the receiving end of words like these when we’ve found ourselves in the depths, or perhaps witnessed this kind of advice being offered to someone else? Remember, our Romans text also cautions us: “Do not claim to be wiser than you are.”
I suppose it’s possible people rush to offer answers to the problem of human suffering simply because we can be uncomfortable with unanswered questions. Surely everything must have a rational explanation? We might feel “I don’t know” isn’t a complete answer, even when it’s the most honest answer there is. Or maybe we want to get God off the hook a bit? If the suffering has a reason, or is someone’s fault in some way, perhaps God comes off looking better? But God isn’t fragile, friends. Whatever people need to dish out to God in their agony, anger, or frustration, I assure you - God can take it!
So again, for most of the book, Job’s friends are not the best role models for us! But I also find it fascinating that their initial instinct was a good one, which is why I selected these particular verses from Job today. Here in chapter two, they actually got it right. The text says they heard “of all these troubles that had come upon him” – Job had by this point lost his property, his health, even his children - and they dropped everything and showed up. As we heard, “they met together to go and console and comfort him… they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads” (these are simply traditional signs of mourning; they’re grieving with Job here), and “they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:11-13) The most important thing they did in the entire book, for their hurting friend, was essentially to show up and shut up – in other words, to sit there and weep with him, and to let him express his pain.
Before Job’s friends open their mouths and start to offer all of that unhelpful advice, their initial instinct reminds me of my friend’s wise words: A lot of times we can’t fix people’s lives. We can only let them know they are not alone, they matter, and someone cares. It reminds me too of that mom consoling her preschool son, whose treasure – his special handmade Christmas gift for his parents – suddenly lay smashed on the floor: It does matter. It matters a great deal.
So how can we pray for those who are suffering? How can we live out our faith or speak about our faith, with those who are in pain? We lament, and we show up. We lament, and we take care of them in whatever ways are open to us. We weep with those who weep, and we remind them: I’m here. You matter. I see you. I hear you. I care.
It’s not always necessary to have answers to people’s questions. Perhaps, one day in the future, friends who are hurting now will be able to look back at these tough times, to reflect from a distance and to see something good that has come from an awful experience, or to realize they learned something through it. It happens. I’ve heard people tell powerful, eloquent stories of how God brought them up out of the pit, or what they learned while they were in the depths. Sometimes that gift of sense, reason, redemption of a bad situation is given to us. We certainly don’t seem to get it on demand, though. So it’s neither our responsibility nor any of our business, really, to try to force a reason for someone else. Nor should we require of ourselves that life’s hardest moments have to make rational or theological sense. If answers ever come, I’m afraid they have to come in God’s own time.
Now just to be clear – there are plenty of things we can do, plenty of steps we can take that are well within our power, to address human suffering and to help make the world a better place. I’d hate for anyone to leave this morning thinking we’re utterly powerless to make a difference! We’ll be talking about those other kinds of situations over the next couple of weeks.
But in situations it is entirely impossible for us to fix, in the absence of a magic wand, all we really can do for someone who is suffering – well, fortunately it’s also the most important thing of all. We can bring our lament to God on their behalf, and we can ask God for an opportunity to offer them some small measure of comfort, peace, or love. Then, like the mother of that little boy, or like Job’s friends, we can sit ourselves down next to the person whose treasure has been shattered, offer a hand or a hug to show them we care, and join them in their tears.
 As cited by Thomas W. Currie in “Not Without Tears,” Journal for Preachers, Lent 2018, p. 54.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
A couple months ago I proposed offering a sermon series this winter entitled “Glad You Asked,” incorporating questions from the congregation. While you’re welcome to submit additional questions anytime, I’ll be tackling the first set with you over the next few weeks.
Notice I use the word “tackling” rather than “answering.” Naturally I can’t promise to offer answers to everything you may be wondering about, but I suspected we’d find areas of overlap, with several of us curious about the same kinds of things, and I thought there would be some value in exploring these topics together on Sunday mornings.
There was indeed a lot of overlap in the questions you sent me, several of them beginning with this single word that is our sermon title this morning: Why?
Granted, the words following the “why?” varied greatly. For instance: Why must my friend suffer from such a debilitating illness? Why are so many children sick and dying? Why does God allow disturbed persons to kill students in their classrooms and to kill Christians sitting in their churches? Why does God allow terrorists to set off bombs in airports and run people down on streets?
That you are asking these kinds of questions proves you are paying attention (and praying attention, as we discussed last week). I think wistfully sometimes of a line I once heard: “life is fraught less for the thoughtless.”1 That may well be true. But you are far from thoughtless. You are deeply thoughtful, faithful, compassionate people, and instead of isolating yourselves in some sort of comfortable church bubble, you have your feet firmly planted in the real world, which is precisely why these kinds of questions come up. How could we possibly witness so much suffering, and so many instances where evil appears to be winning the day - and not ask: Why?
Sometimes we can manage a partial answer. For one thing, God created human beings with free will, which allows us to sin. So, tragically, plenty of the suffering in our world has as its immediate cause horrible choices people have made to inflict pain on others. There are also physical and chemical laws governing our universe, and aspects of the design of human bodies that can explain, at least in part, why a wildfire can ravage such an enormous area, for instance, or why viruses and cancer cells can be so destructive. But for most of us these partial answers aren’t enough, because they really only beg the larger question: Why do bad things like this need to happen at all?
I suppose if we adopted a different philosophical outlook, the question might not be troubling in quite the same way. If we believed the universe was utterly random in its makeup, and that no one was really in charge. Or if we believed that any divine force in the world was capricious, or just plain mean, so that whatever God or gods were out there were just messing with us. That kind of premise would at least make a certain amount of sense of what we see happening around us on certain days.
But I’m guessing most of you are here today because, like me, somewhere at the core of your being you know that’s simply not true. You believe, or you want to believe, that we have a loving God. A kind and compassionate and merciful God. Also a supremely powerful God. So what gives? Couldn’t God spare us all these awful things if he wanted to? Doesn’t he want to?
I think there’s a level at which the question “why?” when asked about these kinds of tragic situations, carries with it an underlying exclamation, an outcry. We ask “Why?” when what we really mean sometimes is “NO” with about a thousand exclamation points. The subtext of “Why, O Lord?” can be “It hurts, God, make it stop!” Or “Enough! Our hearts are broken!” “Why?” can mean “It’s not supposed to be like this; it isn’t right!” or “God, I’m begging you, say it isn’t so!” We ask “why?” because someone we love is hurting, and we just can’t bear to see them hurt. We ask “why?” because we are grieving over the state of our world, and we should be grieving. After all, it was God who planted in us an understanding that the world should be fair and just, that people should treat one another with respect and kindness, that we should be healers and peacemakers and doers of righteousness, that the world was created good. God, you’re the one who taught us this was how it was supposed to be! So why on earth, why in the name of all that is holy, is it instead this horrible mess we see unfolding around us?
We ask “why?” for all kinds of good reasons. And I wish I could tell you why. I’m sorry I can’t. I’m right there with you in the protest, in the emphatic “No!” I want to shout at the injustice of it all, with far too many innocent people suffering far too much. Both people dear to us, and people around the world.
I can at least assure you that people of faith have been asking these same questions for millennia. The Psalms, for instance, have been the prayer book of the Jewish people since well before the time of Jesus. Christians, too, have prayed through The Psalms in every generation and on every continent. In the Church we’re likely best acquainted with psalms of praise, psalms of trust, psalms of rejoicing – which isn’t surprising since those are the ones we do tend to lean on most often in worship – but did you know that a full 40% of our biblical psalms are actually psalms of lament? Like those read this morning, they often ask the same kinds of questions we’re asking: “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1) “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1) “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1)
I find it really quite brave that monastic communities pray through the psalms – all of the psalms – regularly, gathering for prayer multiple times a day to lift up these ancient words. They’re not picking and choosing their way through the book the way we sometimes do, selecting the sweeter, gentler words. Those who commit themselves to praying through the entire Book of Psalms learn very quickly that they are going to have to let it all hang out with God. To pray from the depths of pain, and the heat of anger sometimes, rather than simply offering up the kinds of pious-sounding words we think God wants to hear. The Psalms not only encourage, they require from us deep honesty in prayer. They don’t shy away from asking hard questions of God - a whole lot of tough, tough questions.
It’s not only in the Psalms we find this kind of biblical language either. We find it in the book of Job too. In some of the prophetic books. A couple weeks ago I mentioned the biblical book of Lamentations, which is just what it sounds like – an entire book of laments. So wherever it is some of us got the notion that God demands we stay cheerful and upbeat in our prayers, it certainly wasn’t from the Scriptures!
We are in good company every time we ask tough questions of God. In fact, we’re in the very best company. For Jesus himself cried out on the cross those same words we read this morning from the opening of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” So when we find ourselves contending with questions we can’t answer, at the very least, let’s keep on asking them. And keep asking them of God. Let’s follow biblical precedent and get right up in God’s face about it all. And if we’re too upset sometimes to even be able to put words around the cries of our hearts, let’s pick up the Psalms and let them be our guide.
If you really pray through the Psalms – not just the more cheerful highlights – you’ll see why our Jewish brothers and sisters have been able to pray them in the worst of all possible situations. In exile in Assyria and Babylon. At the destruction of their beloved temple in Jerusalem. Through the pogroms – regular massacres of entire Jewish villages - in Russia in the 19th century. In places like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Nazi concentration camps of the 20th century. Prayers written hundreds of years earlier given gut-wrenching new meaning in those new settings.
I’m afraid we won’t get adequate answers to “Why?” questions of this magnitude, at least in this lifetime. But that needn’t stop us from asking, or from protesting.
And there are related queries to which we actually can find answers in Scripture. I was also interested to see among the questions you sent me things like: How do we pray about what’s happening in our world? How do we keep from being frozen with fear in such a world? How do I talk about my faith to people I know who are suffering? We’ll explore some of these themes in coming weeks.
Meanwhile, when the question is as stark as “Why do bad things happen to good people?” the answer biblical authors offer us is essentially: “None of us know either. That’s why we’re asking that question right along with you.” But remember that their response doesn’t end there. As we read our way around the Scriptures, we find right alongside those honest questions and doubts plenty of reassurances too. Like: I don’t know why innocent people have to suffer, but I do know how much God loves us, so much that he gave his only Son. I don’t know why evil seems so often to gain the upper hand, but I know that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. I don’t know why God’s children must wait so long, and endure so much, before God wins the ultimate victory, but I know that victory is coming, and it’s as certain as if it’s already happened. In a way it has, for if God can conquer death in Christ’s resurrection, there is no battle he cannot win.
Both biblically and historically, God’s people have continued to worship even in the most awful circumstances because while it is true that there is far too much suffering in our world, it is a greater truth that God will never leave us or forsake us, that God can equip us with strength for the battle, and that God holds us and loves us through it all, with a love stronger than any we can imagine. Like other psalms of lament, Psalm 22 actually ends with words of praise, and with a strong affirmation that God is in control, in spite of it all. In fact, we’ll use those words later on this morning as our own affirmation of faith.
If we’re not asking “Why, O Lord?” we’re not paying attention. If we’re not asking why, we’re not showing we care about the way it should be. And God created us to care. If our hearts hurt as we witness suffering, it’s because he put within us empathetic, compassionate hearts. He designed us to long for and work for a better world.
So when we join that chorus of faithful voices, thousands of years old, and when we stubbornly insist on keeping God in the conversation and directing the question to him, it can be an act of profound faith to ask: “Why?”
1 From the song "Dancing Through Life" in the musical, "Wicked."
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
My sermon title today is borrowed from Glennon Doyle. She uses the phrase “praying attention” to mean showing up, being still, and simply bearing witness to life’s important moments and God’s presence in those moments. As in: sometimes there’s nothing else we can do, other than to be there for someone, and to “pray attention.” I love that.
But I confess I’ve also been challenged recently to think about what that same phrase – “praying attention” - might mean in contexts where something more is called for than simply being still in the presence of God. In what ways could “praying attention” be something more along the lines of a wake-up call, or even an invitation to action?
Certainly biblical prophets were big on offering wake-up calls from God. As some of you may remember from our sermon series on the prophet Amos a year or so ago, Amos was appalled by the injustices of his day, and proclaimed a strong message of divine judgment against the nation of Israel. It’s in that context that Amos speaks for God, in the verses we heard this morning, saying: enough already with your pious religious celebrations, you bunch of hypocrites! I want none of it! It won’t surprise you to hear that Amos wasn’t a popular guy. Calling people on the carpet for their hypocrisy generally doesn’t win you many friends, and Amos’ contemporaries responded about the way you’d expect – by trying to run him out of town.
But here’s the thing: the kingdom of Israel in Amos’ day needed a voice like his to be lifted in protest. There was a vast gulf between rich and poor in 8th century BC Israel, and the poor were being trampled on – pushed aside, taken advantage of – precisely by those who regularly brought sacrifices to the temple in an attempt to appear righteous before God. This was religious hypocrisy of the highest order, and someone needed to bring a wake-up call from God into this setting. Amos was the man God appointed for the job, sending him to bring harsh words about falseness in worship, and an urgent call to justice and righteousness.
In many ways, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the Amos of his era. Just as Amos addressed Israelites who offered empty sacrifices to God, then went out and oppressed the poor, Dr. King challenged white Christians who attended church every Sunday, then went out and oppressed the African-American people who lived among them. If you replace the Israelite’s festivals and solemn assemblies with church sanctuaries and fellowship halls, the burnt and grain offerings with money collected in the offering plates, and the melody of the harps with that of piano or organ, you would end up with a picture remarkably similar to far too many white congregations in Dr. King’s day. It’s not for nothing that King incorporated a verse from Amos into one of his most famous speeches. In fact, it may have been in his “I Have a Dream” speech that you first encountered the Old Testament prophet’s call to “let justice flow down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
I’m reminded on this Martin Luther King weekend that one whole category of “praying attention” in 2018 simply has to involve noticing the racism, racial violence, and racial injustice in our country right now. Like me, you may wonder how it’s even possible that this many years after the Civil Rights Movement we seem to have been moving dramatically backward rather than forward as a nation in these areas. And that was even before this week’s racist comments from the White House about our brothers and sisters in Haiti and Africa. Heaven help us all! We believe – as we read in Genesis this morning – that human beings are created in the image of God, which means that every one of us has equal value and worth in God’s eyes. Yet how far, how tragically far we continue to fall short, as a society, violating the image of God in one another in countless, deeply destructive ways.
Granted, we sit here this morning in a little pocket of Seattle where it’s fairly easy to go about our daily lives without thinking about race much at all. But it’s also not hard to figure out why that is, or to realize that people who don’t look like most of us in this room don’t have that luxury. I was glad to have a chance to read a book recently called “Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race,” by Debby Irving. It would make for a terrific book group discussion at church sometime this year. I confess I’ve hesitated to hold discussions about racism here simply because so many of us are white. It feels like we’d be missing important conversation partners, because of course we would be. On the other hand, as the author of this book reminds us, it’s also profoundly unfair that the burden of addressing racial injustice isn’t shared, simply because those of us who happen to have been born with lighter skin aren’t as directly impacted by that injustice. I know I need to engage more in this area. And I want that engagement to infuse my prayer life as well. I want to start not only paying more attention but also “praying [more] attention” - both to my own white privilege, and to the subtle and not so subtle ways racial prejudice has taken root in our society.
Moving beyond waking up to racism, there are easily as many other ways for us to “pray attention” as there are people in this room. Certainly far more ways than we could possibly delve into in a single sermon. So I’ll just share one more personal example this morning, and then an example from our congregation’s worship life.
First, speaking personally… Hopefully it’s clear enough that I love spending time with Presbyterian Christians – after all, I’ve made this my life’s work - but this also means I have spent the vast percentage of my adult life surrounded by my own kind, if you will. So it’s been a real gift to be invited to join an interfaith clergywomen’s group this year. It’s high time my circle of friends and ministry colleagues included Jewish rabbis, and Catholic women and Muslim women who are leaders in their faith communities, as well as pastors from different racial & ethnic groups who represent a variety of other Christian traditions. We’ve only met a couple of times and already I find I’m “praying attention” in new ways. Just as one small example, I’m realizing that I’ve gotten to prepare for worship each week of my career, aware in only the most basic ways of the latest act of racial violence or anti-Semitic aggression, for instance, or the latest example of someone confusing devout, peace-loving, law-abiding Muslim Americans with terrorists. It is both humbling and heartbreaking to sit in a room full of colleagues and realize how few of them have that same luxury. While to a large extent I get to decide which events in the news draw my focus in a given week; some of my new friends don’t have that choice.
In some ways, it’s a similar type of “praying attention” we’ve been encouraging with our world prayer emphasis on communion Sundays here at church. On any given Sunday, we have all kinds of concerns on our hearts when we arrive for worship, for family members and friends, work colleagues and neighbors facing difficult circumstances. We’d never want to neglect them in our prayers. But it’s easy to stop there, isn’t it? It’s easy to limit our focus in prayer to people in our own immediate social circles. I keep feeling this nudge from God to look farther outside of ourselves. To remember people in other parts of our city and our world whose struggles and celebrations are no less important than our own. How might we “pray attention” to them? Incidentally, this is how the globe came to live on our communion table here about a year ago – it’s simply intended as a visual reminder that God has the whole world in his hands. And this is why most communion Sundays now have us broadening our prayers to include God’s children in other places.
The good news is the more we learn, outside ourselves, the more we expand our circle of attention, the more others’ concerns naturally become our concerns. So that when we hear a news story we won’t just be thinking in an abstract way about this or that war, this or that group of immigrants or refugees, this or that “-ism,” we’ll be holding in our hearts people we genuinely care about.
Because “praying attention” necessitates first paying attention like this, I’m trying to learn more this year about what life is like for children of God whose experiences are different from my own. I’m trying to read more widely, and trying to listen for God’s voice reaching out to me in new ways, through new faces and new stories. I welcome you to join me in that journey, whether it be through something like a book study, or an open house visit at a local mosque, by helping us brainstorm about ways to expand our focus in prayer this year to include more of the world, or perhaps through another new initiative entirely that you’d like to propose for us as a church family.
Granted, “praying attention” will require us to step outside our comfort zones. It’s likely to require effort, time, perhaps even courage. But surely it’s well worth doing. I hope you’ll share with me where God’s Spirit is inviting you to “pray attention” this year.
 Glennon Doyle, “Why You Should Never Underestimate the Importance of Just Showing Up” in Oprah Magazine.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I’ve just spent a couple weeks with my Broadway fanatic college girl, so I guess it was bound to happen. Look out, here come some more borrowed Broadway lyrics in a sermon. The musical this time is “Groundhog Day,” of all things –they have turned the old Bill Murray / Andie McDowell movie (about reliving the same day over and over again) into a musical. And while I can’t quite picture the whole movie in that format, one of the gems to come out of this effort is a song called “If I Had My Time Again.”
Admittedly there are some cringe-worthy lines in the song too, not all of them G-rated, as the male lead sings about all of the idiotic things he’s done with his time, as the same day repeats itself over and over and over again. The beauty of the song comes from the female lead, who sings wistfully about how amazing it would be to be given that same gift of extra time he’s currently squandering. She begins by expressing her frustration at time-related challenges that may sound familiar to you:
"Sometimes, it’s like I’m stumbling forward,
Jostled from behind by time.
Sometimes, it’s like I’m being dragged
Yet always lagging,
Trying to keep in time with time.
But if I could stop the clock for just one day,
If I could freeze a moment for a moment,
Rest before the measure’s over,
Hold the beat for just one day.
If I could wind it back and start afresh,
Just a day to catch my breath,
To make mistakes and set them right,
Delay the coming of the night…"
She then uses the rest of the song to tell us the kinds of things she’d do, if she were given the opportunity to repeat her days:
"If I had my time again,
I would do it all the same, they say, but that’s insane.
Wouldn’t you want to make a couple of changes?
Regrets, I’d not even have a few
If I could do this thing that you
Say you can do…
I’d sample all the samples,
Look at things from different angles,
I would not do it all the same,
If I had my time again…
The things I’d handle better,
I’d send my unsent letters…
If I had my time again
I’d open all the doors I’ve never looked behind,
And oh, the things I’d taste, the things I’d try,
And the misery I could prevent,
And I would make a lot of friends…
And I would be a lot more zen…
If I had my time again."
Meanwhile, right in the middle of the song is a line that’s almost biblical:
"It’s so exciting
A new beginning… every morning…
To have the chance to strive for more…"
“A new beginning every morning.” That should sound a little familiar by now, if you’ve been paying attention as we’ve moved through our worship service today. In our call to worship and in our reading from Lamentations just now, we heard that promise that God’s mercies are new every morning. The prophet Isaiah urged us not to dwell on the former things, for God is about to do a new thing. We sang about newness and renewal too, in the classic hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”: “morning by morning, new mercies I see.” While the Broadway lyrics are based on the premise of having the very same day repeat itself over and over, the songwriters know there are ample life lessons here for the rest of us whose 24-hour cycles are realistic rather than magical. Because, to a certain extent, we do get to hit that reset button every morning, don’t we?
The lifespan for any one of us is uncertain, that much is certain. We seem to get far too many reminders of this fact. We have no idea how many days we’ll be given on this earth. But any day we are able to wake up and start afresh is a gift, is it not? At this time of year, as we pull out whole new 12-month calendars, we’re perhaps even more aware of the potential to refresh or reset various aspects of our lives. We do, in a sense, “have [our] time again,” as the song puts it. We have a whole new year lying ahead of us now, ripe with possibilities.
To be fair, we may also have some regrets, as we look back over our shoulders at 2017. But that’s the beauty of God’s mercies being new every morning. That’s the beauty, too, of a weekly prayer of confession here in worship. It’s ok if we “would not do it all the same,” if we’d rather “make a couple of changes.” God welcomes us to do so, and what’s more, God stands ready to lend us a hand in those efforts, wiping the slate clean every time we honestly seek his forgiveness, giving us a chance to start again.
There’s an old prayer that goes something like this:
So far today, I've done all right.
I haven't gossiped,
haven't lost my temper,
haven't been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or overindulgent.
I'm really glad about that...
But in a few minutes, God,
I'm going to get out of bed.
And from then on,
I'm going to need a lot more help.
(Thank God, his mercies are new every morning, right?)
It’s also not necessary for life to be as smooth or carefree as we might wish it to be, to recognize the gift of each new morning. It’s important to remember that some of those encouraging biblical lines we’ve heard and sung this morning come from a book called Lamentations! Lament being an expression of grief or sorrow, and the biblical book of Lamentations being a collection of sad poems expressing grief over the destruction of Jerusalem. Perhaps not where we might expect to find such hopeful words? Yet that’s precisely where we find these reminders that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,” that “his mercies are new every morning,” and that his faithfulness is great. What a relief that we do find these words here, for what good would God’s faithfulness be to us if it only applied when everything was going right? Do you know a lot of people whose lives are perfect, who never face hardship or pain of any kind? For that matter can you think of an age of human history unmarred by violence or tragedy? But God’s faithfulness hangs in there with us right smack in the middle of the awful. Whatever that awful may look like for you, or for me, or for our world, on any particular morning. God’s faithfulness is promised in the midst of tears and pain and confusion and heartache, just as it is promised on all of life’s good days too. God’s mercies are new every morning, not just on the easy ones.
I’ve come across some lovely prayers in the Jewish prayer books I’ve been reading recently that seemed particularly fitting for this new morning, so I recruited a few readers to help me share them with you. I’ll ask them to do that now.
In my half-sleep, O God,
In my yawning confusion,
I thank you with a croaking voice.
How strange and spectacular
This body you have granted me
And fill with awareness each morning.
For tongue, tendon, teeth and skin,
For all the chemicals and connections
that make this collection of cells
into a being who can stand and sing,
who can seek Your love
and offer love in turn,
for the mechanisms and mysteries
you have implanted within me
I will thank You
And set about the task of being human
As the sun rises
And my eyes begin to clear.
“There is grace that every dawn renews, a loveliness making every morning fresh.”
In the morning, before this day’s journey begins,
I offer thanks before you, God,
That just as you found me worthy
To gaze upon the sun in the east,
So I will merit seeing it in the west.
And when darkness descends,
May it be your will to grace me
With another dawning of light.
In the musical “Groundhog Day,” the female lead may sing it wistfully, but we know there’s a sense in which she, and we, actually get her wish. “If I had my time again?” Oh, but we do. Not only with every new 12-month calendar, but every single time our alarm clock wakes us up to begin another day.
Show us, Lord, where are the changes you’re inviting us to make in each new 24-hour cycle this year. Show us how to look at things from different angles. Show us the doors we might open, the things we might try, the misery we might prevent. Show us the grace that every dawn renews, the loveliness making every morning fresh. When we might be tempted to dwell on the former things, particularly those that haven’t gone the way we wanted them to, remind us you are about to do a new thing. Help us enter each day humbly, gratefully, and courageously. Remind us that you go before us, that you walk alongside us, and that you’ve got our backs.
“If I had my time again?” Oh, but we do! What will we do with that precious gift today?
1 Mishkan T’filah: A Reformed Siddur, Weekdays and Festivals, p. 37
2 Mishkan T’filah: A Reformed Siddur, Weekdays and Festivals, p. 25
3 Mishkan T’filah: A Reformed Siddur, Weekdays and Festivals, p. 23