Out of the Depths
Text: Psalm 130
“Lighten up, Gary!” “You can’t be serious, Gary?” “This is Labor Day Weekend and over 10% of the country is unemployed.” “Gary, no matter how politicians try to spin it, this pandemic is about to leave 200,000 Americans dead.” “Gary, we are so tired of the bad news. Why can’t you just say something peppy and cheerful?”
All the voices you have just heard are mine. These voices are racing through my mind on Sunday, September 6, 2020. They are largely a variation of the same voices that I have heard all my life whenever national or personal grief hits. These are the voices within me and beyond me that have little patience with grief. These are the voices that say it is fine to mourn for a week, maybe even a month in extreme circumstances, but after that it is time to get over it and be happy, as if grief is ours to control.
On the one-year anniversary of 9/11, poet laureate Billy Collins stood before a joint meeting of Congress held in New York City. He resisted all the voices of national denial as he read a new poem called, “The Names.”
Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A fine rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name.
Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner -
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O'Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening
- weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a
match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds -
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a
bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in green rows in a field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.
Thank God for poets, like Billy Collins, who refuse to pretend that grief is like fast food, quick and done. Thank God for poets like the ancient Psalmist who cries to God from “out of the depths.” He does not try to put a good face on his grief, to “pull it together,” lest he make others feel uncomfortable in his presence. He does not tiptoe before the throne of God politely asking for an audience, “O God, if you please” or “O God, whenever it is convenient.” No, the Psalmist stomps on the doorstep of heaven and shouts, “Lord, hear my prayer. Listen to the voice of my supplications. And, listen Now!”
In times of national or personal loss, I tend to stuff my unresolved grief, my unanswered questions for God in a mental closet and slam the door. You and I honor the Psalmist’s faith when we do not deny our questions but come before the throne of God and ask “why.” Why must innocents suffer and not just in the twin towers and the Pentagon now nearly twenty years ago? Wasn’t it really only yesterday? Why must there be so much suffering in Afghanistan by those wearing a military uniform or a turban, in nursing homes and hospital rooms by patients dying alone because they wear the dreaded badge of Covid, in prisons where too many young black males are caged for life? Why must there be so much suffering by flowing waters coated with a deadly sheen from oil spills, by laborers in every county of our country whose skills are outdated and their services are no longer needed, by friends of every age and color and gender who are battling relentless addiction? Why, O God, why?!
Over the past few months, some dear friends have listened to my sermons and more than a few have gently commented: “Gary, you are not smiling much these days. We miss your smiles.” My first reaction was: “Now, that is silly. Of course, I am smiling.” My more reflective response is: “They are right. I am not smiling much and I love to smile.” It was such a joy to smile all last night as I officiated at the wedding of my nephew Sean and my newest member of the family, Maddie. I am thankful for moments like last night that bring a huge smile to my face.
I want to smile more and more often. I want our national grief over this pandemic and massive unemployment, this racial reckoning and brutal murder in our streets to be over. I imagine that the Psalmist wanted to smile more as well. Even so, he was honest enough with God to begin his lament with these words: “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!”
That is how the psalm begins, but he was wise enough to keep singing: “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in God’s word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” The Psalmist does not clean-up his grief, does not dismiss his gut-wrenching questions for God as inappropriate, does not put on a happy face when he is in the depths of despair, but he prays and he prays honestly.
Today is not “put on a happy face” Sunday. I wish it were! Today is a day to listen to the Psalmist stomp at the doorstep of God, but only because the Psalmist trusts that someone is listening, someone actually cares. He prays because he knows that God hears all our prayers, the unedited ones, the uncensored ones, the most selfish to the most selfless ones.
Today then is a day for us to stomp and shout and grieve before the doorstep of God, a day to let no one silence us. But it is also a day to rally around our God whose heart has made room for all the names from 9/11 listed by Billy Collins, all the names listed by the keepers of Covid death statistics, all the names listed on every national monument, and all the dearest of names remembered on the mantle of every home.
Today is a day to shout from “out of the depths” and when we do, these words from another psalm rise like a phoenix out of the ashes: “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
May that morning joy come and may it come soon!