YEARNING FOR GOD
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
August 19, 2018
Texts: Isaiah 55:1-13; Psalms 42-43
As a child Hildegard yearned for God. She yearned for the God she experienced through her visions, the God who, in her words, “kindled the spark of every life . . . beyond the beauty of the meadows.” She saw God gleaming in the rivers and lakes, burning in the sun and stars, and in every breeze.
Born in 1098 as the tenth child of a family of minor German nobility, she was dedicated to the church and sent to Jutta, an anchoress, the leader of a small cloistered convent in Disibodenberg, now the site of the ruins of a medieval monastery. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was named as her replacement. In 1150 she moved to Bingen, a town on the Rhine where she administered a convent and monastery. It was during this period of her life that she wrote the poetry and music that spoke of her yearning for God.
Like the Palmist, she set her yearning to poetry, some of the most extraordinary to come out of the twelfth-century Renaissance. Like the Psalmist she also spoke of the tension between ecstasy of the spirit and despair for our own yearn-ing for God’s presence in our lives creates the same seeming contradiction. But the yearning and the despair when we experience God’s absence is common to all of us as we strive to experience the divine in our lives.
Like Psalms 9-10, 42 and 43 form one unit; the lan-guage and endings are the same and the language of 43 reads as the third verse of a poem separated by a Greek translator when putting together the Septuagint. The three refrains – 42.5, 42:11, and 43:5 unite the structure of the poem. Another clue is that there is no superscription at the top of 43 in the Psalter.
The form of the poem is that of an individual lament. As with other laments, there are three actors: the sufferer, the wicked and God. Listen to the power of the poetry: As a deer yearns for streams of water…. Think what it’s been like during the dry spells we have had – we pour water from our spigots but deer and other animals and birds are dependent on the grace of flowing streams.
There are those of us, of course, who supplement those flowing streams with buckets and wash basins full of water, allowing the deer and other of God’s creatures to drink deeply during the dry summer days.
The tears of yearning for God’s presence can run as hot as our despair runs deep. And there are certainly times in our lives when we feel the depths of despair, that terrible feeling that we have been abandoned by God. There have been times in my life when I even despaired that there was no God at all. I do not mean the intellectual wondering if there is a God but the deep despair of an Ivan Karamazov, the nihilism of Andreyev in his short novel Lazarus, and the sense of abject loneliness in a universe that made no sense to me.
When faced with the taunt of “Where is your God?” the Psalmist pours out his soul in his memories of days when he worshiped with the people and actually led led them in the procession in the temple. He expresses more than fear of death or loss of privilege but the sense that God is nowhere to be found.
And although he keeps telling himself to hope in God, he still cries out, “Why have you forgotten me?” We have some intimations of the same despair even in persons like Hildegard. Although she won praise from a pope for her book Scivias, an account of her visions since childhood, she despaired when the local bishop forbade the Eucharist at Bingen because she had buried a young man who had been excommunicated.
Like the Psalmist, she responded with hoping in God. Her poem entitled “Loving Tenderness” is a case in point: “Loving tenderness abounds for all/from the darkest/to the most eminent one beyond the stars/Exquisitely loving all/she bequeaths the kiss of peace/upon the ultimate King.” Like the Psalmist – and like us – the fervent hope in God is expressed even in the depths of despair.
There’s a little part of me that thinks she must have been half Finnish for she certainly had sisu when she con-fronted the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who could have easily had her dispatched, and when she confronted those leaders in the Church who told her to cease with her poetry, musical composition, writings, and her strong leadership style. A kind of a medieval Angela Merkel.
It really is in our despair that we yearn most for God. The quality of despair is that it is a singular experience. That is, in despair, we are alone. Even when a people despair, such as groups of refugees, the despair brings a kind of alienation and loneliness that sets each of us apart from the other. I think this is in the nature of despair.
Take, for instance, the rise in deaths among white males in the 25 to 64-year-age group. Societal factors, such as the effects of replacement of low-level jobs by technology, the loss of previously constructed images of identity, a sense of displacement in society have been cited as causes for the increase in mortality among working-class whites, especially those with a high-school education or less.
Although the specific causes are attributable to drugs, alcohol, or suicide, these are deaths of despair, as one sociologist called them. Demagogues such as Richard Spencer have capitalized on this hopelessness and despair, turning it into the anger of the alt-right. In some sense, it has been the failure of our society’s responsibility to educate and transform the hopelessness into an ability to adapt to the changes of a technological society that has spurred this despair.
Despair turned into anger creates and nurtures the seeds of intolerance. The old white aristocracy used despair very well as it pitted poor whites against blacks in order to maintain their own power. Coupled with a loss of faith in traditional institutions such as the church, despair turned to anger can be and is dangerous.
As various observers have noted, what’s striking in the sudden upward shift in white mortality rates, is that it appar-ently is limited to men. Women have not experienced the same dramatic rise; neither has the black population. Some suggest this is because women and minorities have been traditionally held down and still look upward although they may see the odds stacked against them.
Despair affects different groups of people in different ways. The flight of refugees is also a case in point. When a situation becomes hopeless as it did in Syria, people fled and created new societies in the refugee camps in Lebanon. Part of what held the Syrian refugees together was their faith, their hope in Allah, the Arabic for God, and their strong family structure.
An example of this kind of despair turned into hope was in the musical Fiddler on the Roof based on a set of stories written between 1894 and 1914 by Sholem Aleichem called Tevye and his Daughters. In 1905, Czar Nicholas II began ordering Jews out of an area called the Pale of Settlement, an area in the western part of the Russian Empire where they had lived since the time of Catherine the Great in 1791.
As they despair leaving their village of Anatevka, their despair is turned into hope as they look to coming to America for as Tevye says to Lazar Wolf who is going to Chicago while Tevye goes to New York, “We’ll be neighbors!” We may chuckle at that statement but it reflects the need of a com-munity to stay together.
The community of our Nation has not stayed together. We have broken apart with the encouragement of dema-gogues and charlatans. What has broken apart will not be put together by homogeneity of race or religion but only by a restoration of faith in the mission of our society reflected in all religious beliefs: to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with the Creator.
I think it is the despair of loss of faith in what our Nation is supposed to represent that has led to the increased despair among many in our society. People have been cut out, just as the Psalmist was cut off from his society. There are glimmers of hope, however, as we call on God to send out the light of tolerance and acceptance of the diversity of our society.
Like the Psalmist we ask God to vindicate us, to point us in a direction to speak what is best in us rather than the worst. Recreating trust in our institutions is vital, just as it was vital for the Psalmist. In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam used the phrase “social capital” to describe the im-portance of building and maintaining networks of cooperation and trust; the decline in social capital, he argued, bodes ill for democracy.
Almost 80 percent of a metropolitan area population lives outside the central city, and the development of suburbs and exurbs have exacerbated the isolation that many feel with the potential of increasing despair. Putnam looked to churches as the linchpin for developing social capital.
Other kinds of groups as well, such as community organizations tackle the breakdown by creating “community days.” Middletown is not the only town to do so. These kinds of events are important for building bridges and creating networks, to develop the social capital that can help build trust beyond partisan issues. Hard for me to admit, to be sure, but there really is something more than politics. And it is building community that transcends specific political issues into a community that works to eradicate the causes of despair within it.
The Psalmist, of course, probably would not have put it this way. But his despair in yearning for God was tied into the community that he felt had mocked him, taunting him with “Where is your God?”
We can respond much like Hildegard, who when her soul was disquieted within her, to use the Psalmist’s phrase, looked to the natural world around her and found God through even the most insignificant small creature. God’s spirit is in everything, she wrote, even in those who tried to quiet her. It would come, she felt, it would come.
We yearn for God’s presence and God’s assurance. As we draw together in community, we can share our own ex-periences of despair and doubt, faith and hope and sing as did the Psalmist, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise the one who is my help and my God.”
Let us come to God in prayer: We yearn for you as does the deer for the flowing stream; we place our trust in you as did the Psalmist. Be with us, O Lord, as we share our ultimate trust with the world around. In the name of him who showed us how to live, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.