Psalm 32 – Don’t Waste Away

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

Therefore, let all the faithful pray to you
    while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
    will not reach them.
You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
    which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
    or they will not come to you.
Many are the woes of the wicked,
    but the Lord’s unfailing love
    surrounds the one who trusts in him.

Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
    sing, all you who are upright in heart! (New International Version)

Depression is downright awful. It is the leading cause of disability in the Unites States among people ages 15-45. More sobering is the fact that two-thirds of all persons with depression have not yet sought help.

The psalmist was once one of those persons. When he kept silent, it was as if his bones went limp and wasted away inside him. The emotional pain of such an experience transcends our language.

David, the psalmist, had every reason to feel deeply about the circumstances of his life. He had been both the victim and even the perpetrator in all kinds of very troubling situations. Yet, as the king of Israel and Judah, he kept the stiff-upper-lip of stubbornly holding everything inside. 

The very word “depression” literally means to depress or stuff the emotions down inside and keep them tightly held within, not allowing them to see the light of day. Deep inside, those feelings don’t just go away. Instead, they sit, not going anywhere, and eventually rot the soul.

“It’s so difficult to describe depression to someone who’s never been there, because it’s not sadness. I know sadness. Sadness is to cry and to feel. But it’s that cold absence of feeling — that really hollowed-out feeling.”

J. K. Rowling

There was a time in my past in which I was so good at stuffing my feelings that one night when my neighbor had a blow-out of a party at two o’clock in the morning, I actually felt no anger. Just so you know: That’s not healthy. I had an anger problem. Not the kind where you explode, but just the opposite – the kind where you stuff every unwanted feeling in the book.

Recovery, for me, meant first recognizing that I was depressed and had a lot to be angry about. Next, I began to let myself feel the past situations of my life. And I need to tell you that what was inside me wasn’t at all pretty. 

Like a wound that needs peroxide, dealing with depression hurt like hell. But I couldn’t heal without it. I couldn’t go around it or avoid it; I had to go through it. 

Finally, I learned to not only identify my feelings, but take charge of them. I discovered I could choose to say how I feel without apology, and I could say it all in a way that helped others, as well as myself. Like David of old, I had to get what was inside on the outside.

The Christian season of Lent is an appropriate time to do this sort of internal work. This is no time to sit on neglected feelings or stuff emotions. It may seem as if opening up will cause internal shame, outward regret, or judgment from others.

But that would be a lie.

Shame cannot survive the light of day; regret typically happens when we fail to do something; and millions of others are struggling with the very same sort of things you are.

What’s more, God is patiently awaiting for us to break our silence and tell what’s troubling us. With the Lord, there is bountiful grace, unconditional forgiveness, and emotional healing.

I don’t believe depression is a sin which needs to be confessed but rather a terrible condition of the spirit that must be named and dealt with. So, if you are experiencing:

  • Feelings of sadness or a depressed mood that lingers for weeks, even months
  • A loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • A loss of energy or increased fatigue
  • An increase in useless activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech
  • Feelings of worthlessness, shame, or guilt
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Then, it is high time to get help. A place to start can be with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or online at findtreatment.samhsa.gov

It is also wise to speak with a trusted family member or friend about the need for help and support, as well as a safe faith leader, pastor, or chaplain. There is no reason for anyone to have to live with crushing emotional and/or spiritual pain day after day.

Gracious God, your stamp of approval is on the penitent – those who are brutally honest with the inner self and receive your mercy. I will not keep silent. I will declare to you the current state of my life and not run away from the ugliness within. Through the gracious Name of Jesus, I pray with thanksgiving. Amen.

Psalm 71:1-6 – How to Cope with Change and Loss

I run to you, Lord,
for protection.
    Don’t disappoint me.
You do what is right,
    so come to my rescue.
    Listen to my prayer
    and keep me safe.
Be my mighty rock,
    the place
where I can always run
    for protection.
Save me by your command!
    You are my mighty rock
    and my fortress.

Come and save me, Lord God,
    from vicious and cruel
    and brutal enemies!
I depend on you,
    and I have trusted you
    since I was young.
I have relied on you
    from the day I was born.
You brought me safely
through birth,
    and I always praise you. (Contemporary English Version)

No one gets off this planet without experiencing several events of change and loss, resulting in grief and the need to lament. Because of this reality, you would think we all acknowledge this great need of lamenting our significant losses. Yet, we don’t.

Many Christians avoid grief work. The following are just a few of the statements I’ve heard over the decades from parishioners when they experience loss:

  • “Christ is resurrected and alive. There’s victory in Jesus. No need to grieve like unbelievers.”
  • “My loved one is in heaven. No more suffering or pain. It would be selfish of me to be sad.”
  • “It’s a sin to be depressed.”
  • “I can’t let myself cry and fall apart. I need to be strong for my family.”

Those statements are very far from what we find in the biblical psalms and throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture. Consider these realities in the Bible:

  • 62 out of the 150 Psalms in the Old Testament are laments; some are communal, many are individual expressions of grief.
  • God laments. And God grieves with us. (Genesis 6:5-6; Isaiah 53:4; John 11:1-44)
  • An extended time and process of grieving was practiced by biblical characters when loss occurred. It was a normal emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational reaction to that loss. (e.g., Genesis 50:1-3)
  • Lament is an intentional process of letting go of relationships and dreams and discovering how to live into a new identity after the loss or change. There’s even an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting: Lamentations.
  • Everyone’s grief is personal; there is no one size fits all.
  • Avoiding grief, mourning, lament, and loss is totally foreign to the Bible.

Psalms of lament have a characteristic structure, distinct from psalms of praise, trust, or wisdom, like today’s psalm:

  1. Address to God: The address is usually a brief cry for help; and is occasionally expanded to include a statement of praise or a recollection of God’s intervention in the past (Psalm 71:1-3).
  2. Complaint: God is informed about the problem or experience through a range and depth of emotional, relational, and spiritual reactions to change (Psalm 71:4).
  3. Confession of Trust: The psalmist remains confident in God despite the circumstances and begins to see his or her problems differently (Psalm 71:5-8).
  4. Petition: Filled with confidence in God, the psalmist appeals to God for deliverance and intervention.  Petitioning is not bargaining with God or a refusal to accept loss; it is a legitimate seeking of help (Psalm 71:9-13).
  5. Words of Assurance: The psalmist expresses certainty that the petition will be heard by God (Psalm 71:14a).
  6. Vow of Praise: The lament concludes with the psalmist’s vow to testify to what God will do or has done through praise (Psalm 71:14b-24).

The biblical psalms do two wonderful services for us as God’s people: First, a constant stream of reading, quoting, memorizing, and meditating on them actually shapes our faith into a full-orbed, mature, and robust belief. Second, the psalms provide us with a healthy means of expressing the complete range of our human experience. 

So, then, the psalms both reflect our feelings, and, at the same time, form those feelings to know God better, cope with situations, and relate appropriately with others. 

The fourth-century Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, had it right about the psalms when he said: 

“Whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book [the Psalms] you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you not merely hear and pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.”

St. Athanasius (297-373 C.E.), Bishop of Alexandria

Today’s psalm of lament is the expression of a person getting along in years and discovering all the limitations and weaknesses that go along with aging. It is a plea for help. Whereas in younger days the psalmist had the vigor to engage problems and enemies, now he has the realization that he must increasingly depend upon God (and others).  

Far too many people hitting the aging process do not deal with it well. The change to their bodies, even their minds, is so unwelcome that they do not cope quickly, or, sometimes, at all. They believe it silly to lament such a natural occurrence, even though those physical changes dog them day after day.

Based upon the psalms, I insist that lament is a powerful and necessary form of coming to grips with change. God has not promised us life-long health and constant energy. Rather, the Lord has promised to be with us as our refuge and help through all the vicissitudes of changing health and altered situations. 

Let praying the psalms, then, be a regimen as familiar and daily as your using your pill planner and taking your meds.

Ever-watchful God, you are a rock of refuge, a never changing reality in a world of constant change. You are my hope, Lord, and my faith has been in you all my life. I lament all the difficult changes I encounter. I can never go back to the way things were. So, please open to me a new reality where fresh hope and life can be found, through Jesus Christ my Savior. Amen.

Jeremiah 3:1-5 – Spiritual Adultery

“If a man divorces a woman
    and she goes and marries someone else,
he will not take her back again,
    for that would surely corrupt the land.
But you have prostituted yourself with many lovers,
    so why are you trying to come back to me?”
    says the Lord.
“Look at the shrines on every hilltop.
    Is there any place you have not been defiled
    by your adultery with other gods?
You sit like a prostitute beside the road waiting for a customer.
    You sit alone like a nomad in the desert.
You have polluted the land with your prostitution
    and your wickedness.
That’s why even the spring rains have failed.
    For you are a brazen prostitute and completely shameless.
Yet you say to me,
    ‘Father, you have been my guide since my youth.
Surely you won’t be angry forever!
    Surely you can forget about it!’
So you talk,
    but you keep on doing all the evil you can.” (New Living Translation)

We all have needs. 

As humans, each one of us has a deep hunger for love, intimacy, attention, affirmation, and encouragement. When these needs are met within gracious and loving relationships, especially in the marital bond, then there is genuine happiness and flourishing. 

But when our deep wants go unmet over a stretch of time, smiles are replaced with furrowed brows and confident strides give way to slumped shoulders.

We feel deeply and are moved at a visceral level because we are made in the image and likeness of G-d – a G-d who feels and has great emotion. 

Perhaps we too often think of G-d as some disembodied ethereal brain without any feelings. I hope today’s Old Testament lesson puts a collar on such notions. G-d entered into a loving covenant relationship with Israel. Yet, over time, the people looked for their relational, emotional, and spiritual needs to be met in other gods rather than the One true G-d. 

And it pained G-d’s heart.

G-d felt deeply about the people turning away to pursue other gods. The Lord responded to the people like a jilted lover, agonized by their acting like a prostitute – looking for their intimate needs to be satisfied elsewhere. 

It seems to me G-d was so profoundly hurt because the Lord knows that our deepest and greatest needs can only really be met through the divine covenant relationship. People need G-d.

To put it in the stark terms of Jeremiah’s prophecy: 

  • Are we playing the part of a harlot, running after all kinds of other relationships and things that we wrongheadedly believe will meet the needs of our lives? 
  • Do we sell ourselves to others in the misguided belief that we will find true happiness? 
  • Have we sought other lovers and forsaken our first love of the Divine? 

Everyone has a legitimate need for attention, love, and relational connection. The problem arises whenever we seek to meet those needs in illegitimate ways. That’s what we call “sin.”

The most important thing in life is not our job position, our social status, or even whether we are married with family. What matters most is the kind of person you are – it’s all about who you become. Because that’s what you will take into eternity. You and I are unceasing spiritual beings with an eternal destiny in G-d’s great universe.

Spiritual prostitution – and faith communities acting like spiritual brothels – are far beneath who we are and how we were designed by our Creator.

The pathos of G-d calls us to better than hanging out in a dark emotional shame lounge of sordid characters drinking cheap dandelion wine and smoking nasty cut-rate cigars in smelly old leisure suits.

We belong to G-d.

Our place is in the wide-open sunlit rooms of G-d’s kingdom. We have been adopted into G-d’s family and there is no longer any need for walking the streets and going into dive bars, looking for a quick fix of some damning elixir which promises life.

It behooves us all to become aware and connect with our longings and needs, and thereby allowing the G-d who delights to meet those needs into the core of our being.

Know who you really are. Because in that knowing, there is eternal life.

Jealous God, you are zealous for your presence to be known in the lives of all your creatures. Help me to be aware of the deepest needs of my life. May I find in you the desire of my heart and let you fill me with your infinite grace, love, mercy, and attention so that I will know true peace and joy. Amen.

Psalm 39 – Being Honest with God

I promised I would watch my steps
    so as not to sin with my tongue;
    promised to keep my mouth shut
    as long as the wicked were in my presence.
So I was completely quiet, silent.
    I kept my peace, but it did no good.
    My pain got worse.
My heart got hot inside me;
    while stewing over it, the fire burned.
Then I spoke out with my tongue:
    “Let me know my end, Lord.
    How many days do I have left?
    I want to know how brief my time is.”
You’ve made my days so short;
    my lifetime is like nothing in your eyes.
        Yes, a human life is nothing but a puff of air! Selah

Yes, people wander around like shadows;
    yes, they hustle and bustle, but pointlessly;
        they don’t even know who will get the wealth they’ve amassed.
So now, Lord, what should I be waiting for?
        My hope is set on you.
Deliver me from all my sins;
    don’t make me some foolish person’s joke.
I am completely silent; I won’t open my mouth
    because you have acted.
Get this plague of yours off me!
    I’m being destroyed by the blows from your fist.
You discipline people for their sin, punishing them;
    like a moth, you ruin what they treasure.
        Yes, a human life is just a puff of air! Selah

Hear my prayer, Lord!
    Listen closely to my cry for help!
Please don’t ignore my tears!
    I’m just a foreigner—
        an immigrant staying with you,
        just like all my ancestors were.
Look away from me
    so I can be happy again
    before I pass away and am gone. (Common English Bible)

God is big. The Lord is big enough to hear whatever is on our hearts. It really does no one any good to have pretense with God. The psalmist initially thought he had to hold back in speaking with God:  He was silent and held his peace with God. However, his distress grew worse.

The psalmist, David, finally opened up. He went on to speak openly and honestly to God, with flavorful expression, about what was really on his heart and mind.

Sometimes we may mistakenly believe we need to be guarded with God – that somehow we should treat the Lord of the universe like we do with other people – coy, hesitant, keeping a respectable distance in conversation.  Maybe that ought to occasionally happen with other people, but it is silly to approach God in such a manner. With God, we ought to be brutally honest about how we are really doing and how we are actually feeling. 

If we desire to move mountains and have God work powerfully in and through us, then we need to acknowledge and admit there is a mountain smack in front of our faces.

I’m quite sure God has heard it all from people in the long millennia of human existence. The Lord isn’t going to be surprised by any of our thoughts and words. So, why hide them? 

It may be a radical thought for some that we can say anything to God and express our deepest emotions to the Lord who desires to listen. God wants to help us journey in this pilgrimage of faith we are on. For that to happen, we must be up front about our current location and how we are doing.

Like everything in life, honesty is a skill to be developed and utilized. Being honest with ourselves and the Lord involves the following:

Acknowledging both the good and the bad.

Shying away from the shadowy places of our hearts will never resolve the icky-ness we may feel inside. Neither will peace come only by focusing on our screw-ups and bad traits. There is both bad and good within us all, and so, we need to hold them both together, recognizing the tension. The better we accept this reality, the sooner we can walk the path of faith with patience and confidence. Both prayers of confession and praise help us keep the good and the bad in mind.

Giving some time and space, daily, to reflect.

Debrief with yourself about your day or events within the day. What did you do well? What could you have improved? Is there anything you will do differently next time? How might you engraft this kind of reflection into your daily prayers?

Admitting your mistakes and when you need help.

Only a person who admits their mistakes can learn from them and correct them. This is a necessary part of spiritual growth and development. Faith cannot be properly formed if we don’t face up to our own reality. Blaming others only causes us to take the focus off our own needs. Failure and admitting need is to be human. Asking for assistance requires humility and courage – qualities we all possess if we will access them.

Paying attention to your emotions.

David, the psalmist, did it. He was aware of his emotions, acknowledged them, and expressed them to God. Our feelings are not some necessary evil. Rather, they are important to our faith and well-being. All emotions exist as signs for us to pay attention to something, whatever it is.

Listening to the gut.

You and I can learn the difference between an impulsive reaction and an intuitive response. The gut level instinct we possess is our conscience giving us insight. Avoiding this important epistemic ally usually results in a lack of self-awareness and poor decision-making. However, listening to the spiritual whispers within can serve us well.

Reading a psalm every day.

The psalms are emotional. They are also, obviously, biblical. Therefore, emotions are godly. A daily regimen of reading at least one psalm out loud can have the effect of bringing our mind, spirit, and emotions into alignment so that they are not disparate parts inside us.

God of the Ages, you are above all and know all things. Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears.  I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my forefathers. Look away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more!  My hope is in you; without your abiding presence I am nothing. Maranatha, come, Lord Jesus. Amen.