Grace Presbyterian Church
December 22, 2019, Blue Christmas
Let My Crying Come Unto Thee
It was thirty years ago this past Wednesday that my mom died.
It was seven years ago on the 14th that I had one major surgery, and seven months ago this past Friday that I had a second one, the results of which are still an ongoing adjustment I have to make in my life.
When in seminary they tell you that an anecdote is a good attention-getting way to start a sermon, what I just did isn’t what they’re talking about. I think, though, that there are times that there is no good or right formula to begin with, other than to lay bare the fact of human existence – that at some point in our lives, in some way or another, if we have even a tiny shred of humanity about us, we all suffer. And despite our best efforts to avoid doing so, we all end up learning that, as C.S. Lewis put it, “there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it…”[i].
Now there are books upon books out there that will give you all manner of advice or instruction on how to deal with this kind of thing, and their counsel will not be much like what C.S. Lewis had to say about it. You’ll get language about “overcoming,” for example. Maybe “breaking free.” A favorite exercise of mine is to go on Amazon dot com to look for book titles that include the particular word in question, and when one enters just the word “suffering” here are some of the titles one might get:
- More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us
- Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense
- Suffering is Never for Nothing
- Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores
- Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering
- 101 Ways to Find Meaning in Suffering
- Making Sense Out of Suffering
You get the idea. If you’re suffering, whether physically or emotionally or any other way, something is wrong with you for feeling that; or just hold on because this is going to make you into a superhero! (or something); or somehow your faith is off and you need to fix it.
Even the reading from the epistle of James, while it doesn’t go quite that far, begins with the admonishment to “be patient.” I don’t know about you, but in times of grief or pain the last thing I want to hear is to be patient. Like I have a choice, James, come on. There is a time for that counsel, but there is a time not for that counsel too.
As usual when it comes to suffering in scripture, it’s the psalmist who gets it.
For what turns out to be eleven verses in our modern reading of Psalm 102, the psalmist does nothing but pour it all out to God. “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come unto you.” It starts from there and keeps on pouring out; challenging God to listen and not to turn away from the pain being poured out, not just to listen but to answer. And from there, the psalmist does not hold back.
Some of these images that sound odd to us are fairly commonplace in this style of Hebrew; we would speak of them as metaphors or similes, means by which the speaker’s own grief and distress can be expressed in the most vivid and affective terms possible. Some of them, like verse 9’s image of eating ashes like bread and mingling tears with drink, are found elsewhere in the Psalms as well. The psalmist does not care how weird or pathetic he (or she) sounds; it only matters that God hears, nothing else.
For all of the preachers and scholars and others who have pored over the Psalms over the centuries, it is my suspicion that the one who “got” this psalm most of all was not one of them, but a composer. The great English Baroque composer Henry Purcell set out, we think, to create a choral setting of this psalm; we have to say “we think” because Purcell’s setting, as far as we know, never got beyond that first verse – as the King James Version Purcell would have used renders it, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee.” Those are all the words used. But by bringing his own technical skill to the text – using voices at the extremes of their vocal range, eight different voice parts overlapping and echoing one another, letting the volume rise and fall and rise but never letting the music come to rest – Purcell interprets the verse into a surging, overwhelming act of pleading, crying out indeed to the Lord to be heard, to be able to voice the grief and the suffering of the psalmist.
It’s not clear if Purcell was somehow prevented from setting the rest of the psalm, or if indeed the one verse was all he meant to use. My personal suspicion (or hope) is that once he had completed that much, he knew there was nothing more he could say.
Whatever else may come, whatever may happen after the onset of the suffering or grief, the first thing to be done, as C.S. Lewis might say, is to suffer it. Not to hide it or try to conquer it by sheer willpower or any such thing, but to pour it all out before God. Hear my prayer, we say. Let my crying come unto thee. We cry out, and we trust that God indeed will hear.
For the God who truly hears our prayer, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #797, We Cannot Measure How You Heal; #824, There Is a Place of Quiet Rest
Music During Meditation:
J.S. Bach, Prelude in C, BWV 846
Frederic Chopin, Prelude in C minor, op.20
Edward MacDowell, Woodland Sketches, op. 51: “To a Wild Rose”
Amy Beach, “Canoeing,” op. 119 no. 3
Edvard Grieg, Lyric Pieces, op. 12; no. 3, “Watchman’s Song”