The Sorry Monster and Other Psalms

Poet and frequent artist-in-residence Kathleen Norris loves coming in to teach students at parochial schools.  She reads them the Psalms, although, she writes, they “are usually not aware that the snippets they sing at Mass are among the greatest poems in the world.” But when she asks them to pen their own poetry, they begin to let loose. They know what it’s like to feel emotion, to experience the world on their terms, to feel sadness and joy, and, for those who’ve been picked on by older siblings, anger. She shows them how all this is fair game in the psalter, a minefield of depth when it comes to emotions. The writers of those poems knew that this was a place for them to express themselves authentically and truthfully before God.

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Norris explains one interaction in this way.  “Once a little boy wrote a poem called ‘The Monster Who Was Sorry.’  He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him: his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: ‘Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, “I shouldn’t have done all that.”’”  Norris, astounded at his words, declares that the boy has “more honesty than most adults could have mustered.”  The metaphor of the messy house describes the feeling of rage perfectly, as do his words in the aftermath when his anger subsides. “I shouldn’t have done all that.” (From Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, pg. 4ff)

A sermon based on Psalm 130.

Our Psalm this morning runs in a similar vein to “The Monster Who Was Sorry.”  In the Latin its title is de profundis, taken from the opening words “out of the depths.”  Immediately we get sense of the profundity of it all, the intensity of the depth the writer feels himself in.  “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord hear my voice, let your ear consider the voice of my supplication.” The psalmist sits way down in the pits and recognizes that only God can help.  The poem continues, “If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand.”  If you were to mark down every time we messed up, who wouldn’t be found guilty? 

The psalmist sits in a messy house. The writer has raged or sought vengeance or followed the scent of desire or acted on a envious impulse, and that way led to ruin.  These depths have not been brought on to the psalmist by someone else; these wounds are self-inflicted.  This pit of anguish is a result of wrong choices the writer made—no one forced him to do these things — and the ruin is profound.   We’ve no idea why this older monster sits in that messy house—does it matter? can’t we imagine our own sullied houses?—but the poet makes a realization: God is nearby. Close enough to hear those cries for help.

“For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be revered.”  If you’re paying close attention or you’re following along in the Psalm you’ll see I just changed up the word there from “feared” to “revered.”  The fear of the Lord remains a hard concept for many to grasp because we get hung up on the word fear.  Many of us have images of that angry god, that god wanting to extract a pound of flesh for our offenses, who flies off the handle in a moody response whenever he’s had enough.  That fear becomes nearly instinctual.  We walk around on eggshells in order not to disturb this deity we’ve conjured up—or had conjured up for us by religious leaders.  Fear leads to the wrong understanding; revered, while toning it down just a smidge, gives a broader sense of the intended feeling.  The Lord is holy and awe-inspiring and patient and merciful and just, so the Almighty one, the Lord, is to be revered. And the cause of that in this case is that God longs to bring about forgiveness when we’ve trashed the house and the whole town too.  Because of God’s mercy, God is to be revered.

So the Psalmist, recognizing this quality of God, writes, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.”  Hope.  The Psalmist sits in that messy house of his and doesn’t wallow in despair, but rather has hope.  His eyes are firmly fixed on that horizon waiting for the dark night to finally be over.  He knows that at some point—and soon—a crack of light will break over the horizon with just a hint of an orange glow.  A new day will dawn.  And with that new day—as any night watchman knows—comes the end of doubt and fear.  The light drives away that insidious darkness that can consume us.  So the poet waits for that hope to break into his life.

And notice, this hope isn’t just for the Psalmist alone.  “O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; with him there is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.”  Wait and trust and hope for God brings mercy.  God offers redemption.  God wants to raise us up out of the pit, out of those profound depths that we’ve put ourselves in, and bring salvation.  God exudes mercy and forgiveness and love; be patient.  Wait.  Trust and hope that the Almighty One will indeed appear.

Far too often when I’ve brought my lives to shambles, rather than waiting with hope and looking toward that eastern horizon, my instinct is to draw the curtains and lock the doors.  The last thing I want when I’ve made a mess of my life is for someone to come in.  I embarrassed for God to see what I’ve caused.  Like the Monster Who Was Sorry, I utter, “I shouldn’t have done all that.”

Kathleen Norris suggests that the messy house not only helps the boy admit “the depth of his rage,” it also gives him “a way out.”  She imagines him speaking with the monastic Fathers out in the desert during the 4th century.  She writes, “His elders might have told him that he was well on the way to repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human.  If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?”

When the light breaks at the dawn, God doesn’t show up to scold us and make us feel worse.  Rather God comes in to that messy house of ours and begins picking up the broken shards and righting upended tables. God begins helping us to clean up the mess we’ve created in order to help us make it a dwelling place for God.  God doesn’t condemn that house—or us—but rather brings forgiveness when we are horrified by what we’ve done.  “I shouldn’t have done all that.”

God’s character is always to show mercy and forgiveness.  Always.  Cry out to the Lord from the depths of your soul.  Do not hold back.  Realize that if God were to note our failings, all of us would be guilty. God brings forgiveness, so wait for the Lord.  Wait for God to break through the darkness to bring hope and redemption.  Do not despair no matter the profound depth of your condition.  Cry out to God, for with the Almighty One there is plenteous redemption, and the Lord will redeem us from all our sins.  Amen.