“If Job cries out that he is innocent in such despairing accents, it is because he himself is beginning not to believe in it; it is because his soul within him is taking the side of his friends. He implores God himself to bear witness, because he no longer hears the testimony of his own conscience; it is no longer anything but an abstract, lifeless memory for him.” – Simone Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction”
I’ve come to believe that there are no coincidences in the liturgical calendar.
I awoke early on 22 December, just as light was beginning to streak the sky, having completely forgotten that the night before was the longest span of darkness for the year before and the year to come. Something made me realize it as I came awake in bed, and I hoped it was a sign that light is starting to break into the ice jam of darkness in my own mind, bringing to an end the exhausting and isolating but yearly phase of grey. Continue reading
Psalm 46:1, 10
In a phase of frustration & discouragement, this mantra challenges me to put my trust where I’ve bet my life, in God’s hands.
Two of the most infamous psalms in Scripture are 88 and 137, so it seemed like an especially brilliant idea to tackle them both in one go during the 35 minutes alloted for Sunday School (usually it’s more like 45 minutes, but the preacher went long…). Here are a few notes from our class’ wonderings and wanderings:
Though these two prayers have no particular relation to each other, put together, they have something specific to teach; Psalms 88 & 137 take God seriously in a way that we are often unwilling to consider. When a child is clearly upset but says, “No, nothing’s wrong!!” she’s distancing herself from you. She won’t allow herself to be made well or to be changed. Prayer, real talking to God in despair and in anger requires that you be ready for God to act, to transform you and the situation. To share your sadness and anger with God, you must admit that you are sad and angry, and to admit that you aren’t in control and aren’t able to help yourself means you are humbling yourself. It’s significant that in this depression and anger, these composers turn to God; they’re hurt and broken by the world, but they cling to God by continuing to offer prayers.
One woman said, “Whenever I want to pray about something that makes me angry or hurt or sad, I say to myself, ‘well, I should trust more. I should not let this get me down–then I can pray about it.’ But the truth is that these psalms show us that we should approach God just where we are.”
1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
Well, there’s no country called Babylon anymore, so maybe the psalmist got his wish. I think there’s more to be mined here than that: looking at the psalm again and thinking about it from a perspective of “good guys” and “bad guys” or perhaps even “God’s people” and “the Evil one,” what is the Scripture saying to us? We live now in the midst of evil, strangers in a strange land; this place is not our home. We endure violence and struggle against our sin. But someday, we will struggle no more, and we will endure no more evil; happy shall be the one who roots out the progeny of evil, killing off all hints of evil, burning away all darkness–rooting out its very babies, that it has no future.
A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites. To the leader: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.
1 O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
2 let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
3 For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
5 like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
8 You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9 my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
13 But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
18 You have caused friend and neighbour to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.
A pscyhologist was in the class and she observed, “This sounds like clinical depression. The words that are used, the way it’s described–it’s practically textbook.” She is exactly right; the psalmist wants to have hope, but can’t muster it. There is nothing but darkness. We have friends and loved ones who suffer depression, some of us have lost people to the illness. Here in Scripture is preserved one experience of depression, perhaps to let us know that this may be a part of life on earth. This sort of brokenness may not be solved on this side of Heaven. We must admit that not all will be made well in advance of the end. The psalmist reminds us of something very important in verses 10-12: “Do you work wonders for the dead?” he asks; “Is your steadfast love declared in the grave?” he challenges. In Jesus Christ, and in the salvation God offers us through him, yes–God does work wonders for the dead; indeed, his steadfast love is declared exactly in the grave. This does not provide a cure for depression, but we are given hope of healing, whether in this life, or the life to come.
A wise woman blogging through a difficult transition recently wrote that she’s “trying to set energy aside for dealing with life’s daily hiccups before they derail [her].” Immediately, I knew what she meant; I call it “emotional fat”–that energy, a shock-absorber, that keeps spilled milk from becoming a puddle of tears and torn-out hair.
Sometimes we lose our way when it comes to an equal-and-opposite reaction, or even better–no “reaction” at all, but being a non-anxious presence in the midst of upheaval.
Coming back from a place of emotional-boney-ness (which may come up suddenly and without warning, or you may know very well whence it comes, but it’s still unexpected when its impact is so great) takes time, of course, and it happens gradually, with the help of loved ones, and sometimes doctors, and often (for me) chocolate and pastry. Then one day, you look back, and though you’ve got plenty of new stressors, you realize you don’t even want that pastry you promised to yourself for completing the task–the task being done is plenty, or perhaps the task itself was a joy. You make a mental note, “Remember, Self: you love this task which you do. You may not think so, but the moment you get yourself out of bed, or into the car, or onto the phone, you love the way the task reminds you of who you are, and the way the task helps you to be connected.”
I wonder if some of the emotional-boney-ness comes from losing track of who you are. We are the relationships we have–I wouldn’t be Emily if I didn’t have two brothers who live in NYC and with whom I became who I am; I wouldn’t be Emily if I didn’t have lots of family of varying blood-relation splattered all over the globe. Apart from our relationships, we don’t exist, and being un-connected can sort of make us feel as if we aren’t there at all.
On the deepest level, the relationship which truly defines us is Jesus. God came to rub shoulders with each of us, and in relationship to us, with so much love, peacefully, willingly gave up his life for each of us, that we may all be together at the end of time with no death or disconnection ever again. Our worth and energy and emotional fat comes from working to believe* that God really does love you so much as to give up everything for you.
*this is “faith,” and it is a gift, not something we can really work our way into, but it does seem that we’re told a lot of lies about our worth and what makes us worthy. we continue to pray.