“Prayer” by Sheri Park
Acrylic & Oil Pastel on Inkjet Print, 2012
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
Although my sacred is marked profane, let my profanity be considered holy.
Would the curse words of my mouth and the rage-filled meditations of my heart
Some way, somehow, be pleasing to You.
Growing up in a mixed Korean-American/Korean immigrant church, I was surrounded by people who firmly believed that cursing was sinful – that it was, somehow, less righteous.
I am still surrounded by many people who believe this. Through a sort of legalistic understanding of what is “righteous” living, these same people within the church condemn all forms of “unholiness.” This extensive list includes: doing drugs, drinking, not being in a heterosexual relationship, engaging heavily in political conflict, wearing certain types of clothing (especially women), and listening to “secular music” and reading “secular literature.”
Notice the ways in which seeking after kindness and justice and love are absent, replaced by these callous, shaming commandments instead.
I remember, once, when I was bleary-eyed from crying about the state of our nation, from despairing in a cramped classroom post-election. As I walked down the street to turn home from class, I kicked a small rock the whole way, muttering under my breath, “Fuck. FUCK, FUCK FUCK.”
I cannot tell you how much I felt the Spirit draw near to me, to that ugly, lamenting word.
And what I came to realize is that actually, my profanity IS sacred.
When I read through the prophets, like Isaiah or Jeremiah, Ezekiel or Habakkuk– I felt the words clawing their way up through my throat and out of my mouth–
It hurts so fucking much.
When we wail in desperation, in deep anguish and agony –
When through our cursing, our gritted teeth, our tears, our desperation, we cry, “Help us believe in our unbelief!” while laughing bitterly, not really believing it will come true –
God does not consider our prayers LESS precious.
If anything, they are more.
More holy. More sacred.
More raw and real and chasing desperately after God’s own heart.
When we look at injustice, when we see the way in which the world tolerates destruction and violence (v3) –
When we look at the ways in which we, the Church, have thrown precious pearls to swine –
When we have we have instead chosen to trample on the precious voices of those who weep and mourn –
When their tears are dashed to pieces on the rocks, and their souls are torn underfoot –
When we trade treasures for fool’s gold, cutting our teeth on the strangely satisfying participation of oppression, sharpening our smiles and washing our hands in blood-
We are left with a metallic, bitter stain of longing on our tongues.
We choke on the bile, seething in our stomachs-
How can we not respond?
How can we not ask God to have mercy on this fucking broken, burning world, on us?
We are so often concerned about presenting ourselves in the “right” ways, making sure that we have merited God’s favor and justice.
We end our lamentations and suffering (or worse, the suffering of others) by wrapping things up with a nice verse about patience and submission, superimposed on a picturesque, nature background with large, looping calligraphy.
We are more concerned with being “righteous,” all the while throwing what is actually holy – the precious reality of people (queerness, of colorness, womxnness, disability, and so much more) – to the ground and letting it be trampled.
Our tongues are trained through Western, colonial values of false closure, of sealing a still-healing wound and pretending that it does not rot underneath the surface, erasing our real and raw pain and covering it up with “knowledge of God’s truth and character,” of hope that “things get better.” Even after cursing, we might say: “but God is still good through it all,” practicing a metaphorical washing out of the mouth with soap, crooked smiles full of soap suds.
Habakkuk does not do so at the end of his lament.
He starts with frustration and tiredness, asking why God is not listening to his pleas– “How long, Lord?” (v2)
He is angry, because who God has claimed to be all throughout Scripture does not match the current reality that he sees before him (v3).
And he stays frustrated and tired and angry and upset at the injustice of the world– ending with the acknowledgement that this world is unjust and continues to be so.
And yes, God does have a reply for Habakkuk, but it is not necessarily one that is hopeful or uplifting.
Habakkuk continues to be frustrated with God, and God honors that. He continues to be angry with God, and God responds. God does not condemn Habakkuk for having a “sinful” heart, for speaking out of anger and tiredness and hopelessness.
In what ways do you feel pressured (by others, or even yourself) to suppress or smooth over what have been deemed “negative” emotions (anger, sorrow, etc.)?
How can we work on extending our trust that God is big enough to handle the entirety of our experiences and the feelings that come with them?