How Long?

I wrote this last June for a sermon at church, but am sharing today because it still rings true.

 How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long will I be left to my own wits,
    agony filling my heart? Daily?
How long will my enemy keep defeating me?

Look at me!
    Answer me, Lord my God!
Restore sight to my eyes!
    Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death,

       and my enemy will say, “I won!”
        My foes will rejoice over my downfall.

But I have trusted in your faithful love.
    My heart will rejoice in your salvation.
Yes, I will sing to the Lord
    because he has been good to me.

-       Psalm 13

In 2010, I was a missionary in the Amazon Jungle of Peru. I had been out on a visit and when we returned, our leader pulled me into her office and said I needed to call my parents. I knew something was wrong. When my dad answered he said the words that changed our family forever. “Sissy, I’m so sorry to tell you this. Brandon is dead.”

Brandon Lee Sutherland- my 26 year old cousin who filled every room he entered with his larger than life personality and louder than loud laughter- was dead? I said to my dad, “what?! How do you know?” because although I heard what he said, the words did not make sense and I was desperately clinging to the hope that there had been some kind of mistake. I could hear my dad holding back his tears when he said, “your Uncle AG found him in his room. It was an accidental overdose.”

I don’t remember the rest of that conversation. I walked to my dorm, got in my bed, and stayed there for a week.

In the weeks that followed, I got up, went to work, and went back to bed. Eventually, I rage walked (which is walking as fast as humanly possible while listening to very loud music). On one occasion I stood in a jungle downpour just to stop feeling the hot wet tears on my face for a minute.

How could God let this happen? Here I was- a missionary in a foreign land- and my best cousin and friend was dead. I had literally sold all of my possessions to follow God and where did that get me?

Fired. It got me fired. Yes, that’s right. About 5 weeks after that phone call, the director of the organization I worked for called me to his office and let me know that my grief was bringing the team down. My grief did not have a place in his organization- and neither did I. I’ll be honest, as angry as I was, I was also relieved. Relieved that I did not have to pretend to be okay anymore. Because I was not okay.

Psalm 13 is a song of lament. It is an expression of deep sorrow, confusion, and anger. The Psalmist is not shy in his accusations against God for forgetting him. He is overwhelmed by grief and fear and does not hide it. Psalm 13 is one of 42 Psalms of lament- that’s roughly 1/3 of the Psalms. However, our hymnals and modern worship songs are lacking in songs of lament. Why?

I think it is because we are okay with privatized grief, but we don’t know how to do it as a group. It’s uncomfortable. Sitting with another person, in their grief, will likely bring up all sorts of things for us personally that we would rather not deal with. And perhaps it’s because we are afraid of what it says about us as people of hope- if we sit in that grief too long. We are quick to offer “at leasts” and other silver linings of a terrible loss because we are looking for any way out of that sorrow.

But I can tell you in my own experience, those silver lining offerings to a person in the middle of great sorrow, do not comfort. In fact, they hurt and isolate. They let the grieving person know that they are alone. The most comforting thing that anyone said to me in the wake of Brandon’s death- was that Jesus loves Brandon. That Jesus weeps with me. And that she would sit there with me as long as I needed her to.

“How long?”

“How long?”

“How long?”

The repetition of this phrase in Psalm 13 is, as theologian Walter Brueggeman put it, “an important address to God amid trouble, an impatient hope that expects God to redress the trouble promptly.”

Brueggeman also pointed out the use of this phrase in the preaching of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. most famously in his sermon following the march in Selma. Dr. King said, “How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. How long?”

We are in a “how long?” moment, just as Dr. King was in 1965.

How long will we have to wear masks in public?

How long before there is a vaccine for Covid-19? (or, now, how long before it is my turn for the vaccine?)

How long will my social media feed be talking about racism?

How long will it take for people to realize that saying Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that other lives don’t?

How long?

In this “how long?” moment, it’s important to listen to those who are grieving and not silence or abandon them because it’s uncomfortable for us. Just as my friend promised to sit with me in my grief, so too, should we sit with our Asian siblings who are experiencing racism connected to Covid-19 and to our Black siblings who experience racism in both personal and institutional ways and say, “we are listening, we believe you, we will be here and work alongside you as long as it takes to see true justice.”  Because that is what family does- we celebrate the good times- and we grieve the losses together.

The Psalmist’s “how long?” moves from plea to praise in verse 5: “BUT I have trusted in your faithful love. My heart will rejoice in your salvation.”

This movement is an act of radical faith. It is not a movement that happens because the psalmist is told to get over it or asked “why are we still talking about this?” It is a movement that very much acknowledges the reality of what is – it happens in the midst of trouble and grief. As far as we can tell, nothing has changed, there is no resolution to the problems he is facing. This radical faith that proclaims God’s goodness- is a kind of prophetic rebellion against what is, believing in what could be. It is spoken from the reality of grief and pain and struggle- not in spite of it. And it is something that only the person who is grieving can say.

As we listen, as we share one another’s grief, we will bear witness to those moments of radical faith – of prophetic rebellion. Moments like Dr. King’s sermon that proclaimed the moral universe bends toward justice- even though he did not see that justice in his own life- which was stolen from this earth.

And moments like Archie Williams, a contestant on America’s Got Talent who was wrongly convicted of a crime he did not commit at age 22. He was convicted and sentenced to life without possibility of parole despite no DNA or fingerprint evidence and 3 witnesses who testified to his whereabouts at the time of the crime. He served 37 years for something he did not do before the work of the Innocence Project exonerated him with DNA tests. 37 years of his life was stolen by racial injustice and somehow when the host asked him, “how did you get through?” he said, “prison is of the mind BUT I never let my mind go to prison.”

I wept when I heard him speak, and then when I heard him sing, because as amazed as I was by his faith- it never should have happened in the first place.

In this “how long?” moment, there is a need for us to lament and grieve the sin of racism, but there is also a requirement of us to fight against injustice, wherever it exists, including our own lives. I believe in us, church. I know so many of you are committed to that fight- and have been committed to it longer than I have been on this earth- and I am encouraged by that. So, I say all of this not to condemn us, but to keep us accountable to that call. Myself included.

Let us hear the cries of those who are suffering.

Let us lament together.

And let us work toward true justice.