It happens so often that we barely even notice it. You meet someone in the course of your day. You make eye contact. They ask, how are you doing? And you say, Fine!
It’s the standard exchange, right? How are you doing? Fine. Even if you’re not really “fine.” It could be an amazing day, you could be on the top of the world, which is far from just “fine.” Or it could be a terrible day, a not-at-all-fine kind of day. But you say “fine” anyway.
So have you ever known someone who actually answers that question honestly? Who doesn’t just give the formulaic response but actually tells you what they’re really feeling?
How are you doing?
I’m doing great! I talked with my son last night, he’s living in Houston, you know. He just got a promotion and is so excited….
How are you doing?
Furious! Our phones went out and I basically wasted an entire day with the phone company trying to get it resolved. Nothing changed, ugh!
How are you doing?
I am devastated. We got the doctor’s report this morning, and it was not at all what we were hoping for…..
Do you know people like that? Do you hesitate sometimes in asking them that question? Do you secretly admire them for sharing what’s on their heart, regardless of what it is?
The Psalms are a lot like that. We don’t get a simple “fine” from the psalms. They are interested in voicing exactly what they are feeling. They don’t minimize the joy and they don’t sugarcoat the pain. They lay it all out on the table, which is exactly what’s so wonderfully refreshing about them.
Today’s psalm, as I mentioned earlier, is a psalm of lament – “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow,” is how Webster’s puts it. In the psalter there are corporate laments, expressed on behalf of a community of people. Then there are individual laments, much more personal. That’s the one here, and that’s what we’re starting this sermon series with.
That was the plan when Grace and I put this series together earlier this year. Little did either of us know that the voice of lament would be most appropriate for this Sunday – a Sunday following a week that saw a Florida man mailing thirteen bombs to Democratic personalities, a TV personality making racially insensitive remarks on national television, and just yesterday, a shooter taking the lives of eleven worshippers at the Tree Of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. If there ever is any doubt that the voice of lament has a purpose and place for us, this week has certainly put that doubt to rest.
No one is quite sure in the 13th psalm what has elicited this voice of lament. It may have been written by King David, but the phrase “a psalm of David” does not necessarily imply authorship. It could just mean “about David” or “in the spirit of David.” Whoever wrote it, there’s no denying they’re in a bad place. There’s been some tremendous tragedy, some unspoken loss; and it has turned their world upside down. And they mince no words about how they feel about it.
Those first two words, repeated throughout the psalm: How long? How long? How long? You can almost feel the ache rise with each repeat; the pain coming from deep within. This is not the voice of someone just having a “bad day” – someone who got cut off in traffic, who missed the obvious question on the English final. No, this is the voice of someone in the midst of an existential crisis; someone who is lost trying to find their way home.
And the image the psalm uses to capture this pain is the image of not being seen. Listen again to the first three verses, this time from The Message translation:
Long enough, God—
you’ve ignored me long enough.
I’ve looked at the back of your head
long enough. Long enough
I’ve carried this ton of trouble,
lived with a stomach full of pain.
I’ve looked at the back of your head, it says. Two psalms before, the psalmist speaks of seeing God’s face, looking God straight in the eye. That’s when we know we are known – when we are seen by others. When we are seen by God.
But here, the psalmist does not feel seen by God. Not by anyone, really.
Think about what that is like. To go through your day and not be looked at. By anyone. You look at someone – they turn away. You speak – and no one responds. You move – no one notices.
It was American philosopher and psychologist William James who once said:
No more fiendish punishment could be devised….then that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the members thereof. If no one turned around when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met ‘cut us dead’ and acted as if we were non-existent things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would well up in us.
James’ quote recently surfaced in a book by theologian Gregory Ellison III that unpacks the despair of young men of color in our society today; men who do not feel seen by our culture. In a similar vein, the movie Hidden Figures follows the story of female African-American mathematicians who serve an unsung yet vital role in the early years of the NASA space program – they, too, largely unseen.
How long, O Lord, how long?
It is deep, deep pain to not be seen. A pain that grows and festers. A pain that can paralyze, immobilize. A pain that leads nowhere.
But here, the psalmist chooses to do something with their pain. More than hiding it, more than just answering “fine.” No, here the psalmist chooses to give voice to that pain, daring to confront God and say – no scream – how long? How long?! Daring to speak words to what is happening inside, the devastation of not feeling seen. And daring to demand of God something else. Again, from The Message:
Take a good look at me, God – take a good look at me!
I want to look life in the eye,
So no enemy can get the best of me
or laugh when I fall on my face.
Look at me, the psalmist demands of God. Look at me!
And a funny thing happens to the psalmist:
I’ve thrown myself headlong into your arms—
I’m celebrating your rescue.
I’m singing at the top of my lungs,
So full of answered prayers.
Now I imagine that switch from lament to praise took longer than reading from one verse to the next. That sort of thing doesn’t happen overnight; one voice leading to another. But if we voice our pain, it gets there.
You and I, we live to be seen. All of us. Not just our hopes and dreams, not just everything that is good and right in our lives. But the rough edges as well. The darker places. The pain. We long for that to be seen, too. Oh, we’ve managed to convince ourselves otherwise, haven’t we? No one wants to hear my troubles. No one wants me to bring them down.
How are you doing?
And yet, to be seen, to be really seen, is to have our whole selves acknowledged – the good, bad and ugly, the hardship, the pain. It is critical for that to be seen too.
There’s this beautiful word in the Zulu language; the word is sawubona. Translated into English it means “we see you.” It’s “we” even if it’s one person speaking, because that one person is not speaking just for themselves. They stand in the presence of ancestors who have walked before them: We see you.
So in Zulu culture, when one greets someone with sawubona – “we see you” – the other responds with yabu sawubona – “We see you too.”
So let’s try that, shall we? I say sawubona, and you respond yabu sawubona……
We see you. We see you too. Do you see? The way we acknowledge the presence of another person, the way they acknowledge us, is to see and be seen. an invitation to participate in another’s life.
Let me suggest this morning, friends, that the community of faith, and those of us in it, are called to take part in this great act of seeing and being seen. In a world where so many are unseen, we have the power to hear their voice of lament and do the very thing they are longing for us to do: seeking them out and seeing them, and assuring them that God sees them too.
So to those who find their lives devalued in some way, those who are told directly or indirectly they are “less than” because of the color of their skin, the zip code they live in, or who they love, we say sawubona. Say it with me – sawubona.
To those who suffer silently, held captive by unexpressed or unrealized grief, we say – sawubona.
To those traveling long distances, fleeing violence and seeking asylum and safety for their families, we say – sawubona.
To those caught in the crossfires of hyper-partisanship; divisions made deeper with heated rhetoric and fear, we say – sawubona.
To those facing senseless violence and terrorist threats, to fear promulgated by bomb threats and lives lost from yesterday’s synagogue shooting, we say – sawubona.
To those with the courage to share their stories of betrayal and abuse, and to those whose stories have yet to be shared, we say – sawubona.
To those who wonder how long, how long God will hide God’s face from them, how long they will bear pain their soul and sorrows in their hearts all day long, we say to them – sawubona.
To anyone who has ever felt unseen, we say – sawubona.
We see you. We hear your voice. You are unseen no more.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.