Psalm 79 – Unbearable Pain

The nations have come into your inheritance, God!
    They’ve defiled your holy temple.
    They’ve made Jerusalem a bunch of ruins.
They’ve left your servants’ bodies
    as food for the birds;
    they’ve left the flesh of your faithful
    to the wild animals of the earth.
They’ve poured out the blood of the faithful
    like water all around Jerusalem,
    and there’s no one left to bury them.
We’ve become a joke to our neighbors,
    nothing but objects of ridicule
    and disapproval to those around us.

How long will you rage, Lord? Forever?
    How long will your anger burn like fire?
Pour out your wrath on the nations
        who don’t know you,
    on the kingdoms
        that haven’t called on your name.
They’ve devoured Jacob
    and demolished his pasture.
Don’t remember the iniquities of past generations;
    let your compassion hurry to meet us
    because we’ve been brought so low.
God of our salvation, help us
    for the glory of your name!
Deliver us and cover our sins
    for the sake of your name!
Why should the nations say,
    “Where’s their God now?”
Let vengeance for the spilled blood of your servants
    be known among the nations before our very eyes!
    Let the prisoners’ groaning reach you.
With your powerful arm
    spare those who are destined to die.
Pay back our neighbors seven times over,
    right where it hurts,
    for the insults they used on you, Lord.
We are, after all, your people
    and the sheep of your very own pasture.
We will give you thanks forever;
    we will proclaim your praises
    from one generation to the next. (CEB)

The setting behind today’s Psalm is the destruction of the temple and a conquering army who proudly gloats over their victory. This is a prayer, an angry cry for God to step in and act on behalf of the humiliated people. The psalm is more than a simple plea for help; it is a deeply passionate appeal. As a child of the 1960’s, my phrase for the psalmist’s entreaty is, “God, stick it to the man!”

There is no polite knock at the side door of God’s house in the face of such evil. This is a pounding on the front door with the demand for God to do something about this terrible trouble. For the psalmist, the incongruence between who God is and what has happened to God’s people is inconceivable and unacceptable. To profane God’s temple is to profane God; and to kill and maim God’s people is to flip the middle finger at God. The psalmist is beside himself and overwhelmed with emotion.

There is something very instructive here that we ought not miss. When we have been brutalized, victimized, and/or demoralized, we just want someone, especially the Lord we serve, to take notice and feel what we are feeling. Never underestimate the power of empathy and solidarity. To feel alone and bereft of help is an awful feeling.

Perhaps the psalmist’s prayer offends some sensibilities. I wonder, for those who find the language difficult, have ever had a daughter raped or a house destroyed by fire or seen a person killed without mercy in front of their own eyes. Methinks they have not. The feelings of helpless despair and sheer anger defy human words. These are not casual affronts but malicious destructions of property and people.

We need someone to affirm the raw ruthlessness of it all, to have some understanding of the impossible place we are in with such wanton cruelty. When our very support is ripped from our lives, the madness within is too much to bear. Who will rescue us from this body of death?

God is big enough to handle our rage and our hurt. The Lord is available and hears our desperate voice of prayer. Yet, God is not always going to directly and immediately answer on the terms we stipulate. God acts out of God’s own providence and justice, and not from our expectations. And that is a good thing, not a bad thing.

God sees, knows, and feels with us. The realization of this enables us to recenter and reorient ourselves around faith, hope, and love. New life is never a gift in a vacuum; it comes out of agonizing struggle in reckoning with the existing evil.

So, when someone goes through a hellish experience, we are to exercise our capacity to listen and witness the horrible spiritual pain of the person. Healing hurts: it is not a pleasant affair. We are to hang in there and walk alongside another in their hour of need, even when their vitriol seems over the top to us. For only in telling our story to another will any of us find relief and renewed hope.

The psalms permit us to use language appropriate to what has happened to us. They also allow us to move beyond the venom to the God who restores broken lives.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’ will: Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace, that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to you will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. As the Lord Jesus cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in pain, O God my Creator. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief from this suffering and preserve me in peace, through Jesus Christ my Savior, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

John 16:16-24 – From Grief to Joy

Light Shining in Darkness
“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” ~ Carl Jung

Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”

At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”

Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born, she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So, with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. (NIV)

Jesus tended to say things that were neither expected nor wanted. That was even true of Christ’s own disciples who walked and talked with him for three years. Jesus consistently told them there must be suffering before glory. Getting them to buy into such an idea is like trying to get a bunch of Baptists to write their names on a sign-up sheet at church.

Christ was speaking to his disciples in the Upper Room, the last meal he had with them before his death. When they were called by Jesus three years earlier, the disciples were not expecting all the gibberish about leaving and grieving. To put this in contemporary terms, the disciples’ response was akin to saying, “I only think positive. I don’t listen to things that are negative.” Suffering, death, and grief were far from the disciples’ expectations of how things would and should shake-out. They had a hard time understanding what the heck Jesus was saying because his words were out of alignment with their assumptions. Yes, there would be glory and joy. First, however, there must be suffering and grief.

I tend to think in metaphors, so I like that Jesus uses one to bring some context about leaving and returning. And I resonate a lot with his metaphor. My dear wife spent 128 days on total bed rest before our youngest daughter was born. During those four months, we agonized over the health of our little peanut in the womb. I was also in a constant state of concern for my wife’s health. This kind of pregnancy we were not expecting. Those months were hard not only for us but also for our two daughters who needed to step up and participate in family life in new and different ways.

There were months of pain and hardship, not to mention the actual pain of childbirth. Finally, our little girl was born – a bit small, yet, quite healthy. Our grief turned to joy. Nothing could ever take away that joy. We prayed hard back in those days. We asked. We received. And our joy was complete. When I look back on those days, I can remember the anguish. Yet, what prominently stands out is the joy because true unmitigated joy has the power to swallow grief and despondency whole.

In talking through with his disciples about their disappointment of his leaving and their grieving, Jesus graciously gave them the gift of joy. Yes, there can be and is joy in the mourning. Not every story has a happy ending. I can say, however, that the grandest story of all – Jesus Christ’s suffering and death – has resulted in resurrection and ascension. It will all be complete when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Then, the grand narrative of redemption will have its conclusion of no more crying, tears, or pain. There will be only unending joy.

For now, we still experience heartache along with the joy of new life. It can be confusing living in the awkward state of simultaneous grief and joy. Yet, keep in mind that the grief is temporary, and the despair will not last. Joy, on the other hand, has staying power and will be the permanent state of the believer. It is only the smaller stories which may or may not end well. The big story of redemption already has the ending written – joy without grief.

Christ is risen! Therefore, we need not wait to be happy or expect that everything must go our way to have joy. The good news is that there are always fresh opportunities to be happy through asking and receiving. Imagine a Partridge Family kind of bus coming around to all the bus stops of life. Happy times and music arrive around the clock. Chances are the opportunity to be happy has already arrived. Often, it is right in front of us; we just missed the bus because we were daydreaming about a future state of joy.

We are living in the days of the new normal and continual change. Just as there was no going back to a three-year hiatus of the disciples walking with Jesus, so we need to embrace new and different ways of life together here on planet earth. We have the gift of joy. Its just a matter of unpacking it.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Genesis 6:5-22 – The God of Emotion

flood of tears

The Lord saw that the human beings on the earth were very wicked and that everything they thought about was evil. He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. Sothe Lord said, “I will destroy all human beings that I made on the earth. And I will destroy every animal and everything that crawls on the earth and the birds of the air, because I am sorry that I made them.” But Noah pleased the Lord. 

This is the family history of Noah. Noah was a good man, the most innocent man of his time, and he walked with God. He had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. 

People on earth did what God said was evil, and violence was everywhere. When God saw that everyone on the earth did only evil,he said to Noah, “Because people have made the earth full of violence, I will destroy all of them from the earth. Build a boat of cypress wood for yourself. Make rooms in it and cover it inside and outside with tar. This is how big I want you to build the boat: four hundred fifty feet long, seventy-five feet wide, and forty-five feet high. Make an opening around the top of the boat that is eighteen inches high from the edge of the roof down. Put a door in the side of the boat. Make an upper, middle, and lower deck in it. I will bring a flood of water on the earth to destroy all living things that live under the sky, including everything that has the breath of life. Everything on the earth will die. But I will make an agreement with you—you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives will all go into the boat. Also, you must bring into the boat two of every living thing, male and female. Keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, animal, and crawling thing will come to you to be kept alive. Also gather some of every kind of food and store it on the boat as food for you and the animals.” 

Noah did everything that God commanded him. (NCV) 

When I was a kid, the picture of God I had in my little head was of a white-bearded old guy sitting in the clouds looking bored and paying little attention to the humans below. Maybe, once-in-a-while, he would take his divine BB gun and shoot people in the backside, just for some fun. Although I have considerably moved on from that type of theological vision, it seems to be a common caricature of God that he is often indifferent – and even more so that God lacks emotions (except maybe anger). 

The Holy Bible says a lot about humanity. It says even more about God. In fact, Scripture is primarily about revealing who God is – the Lord’s character, attributes – and, yes, emotions. Much like my childhood misunderstandings of God, I am not sure why so many people tend to view God as lacking in feeling and emotion. Maybe the Enlightenment with its focus on reason, logic, and classification simply drained all emotion from God. It could be that contemporary humans project on God their own stoicism toward emotions. Perhaps we see emotions as unreliable and fickle, characteristics that God would not possess – and, so, we jettison any thought of God as feeling deeply about things. Whatever the reason, we will fail to know God as God unless we come to grips with a verse like this:  

The Lord saw that the human beings on the earth were very wicked and that everything they thought about was evil. He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.”(Genesis 6:6, emphasis mine) 

Broken Heart

Rather than our emotional human nature being a result of the Fall, it is instead a part of our original design of being in Paradise with God. As God’s image-bearers, we carry the mark of God with feeling deeply about things, just like our Creator. In those times when sadness seems as if it might swallow us whole, we just may be closer to God in that moment than any other. God has a heart, and that heart has been hurt and broken more times than we could ever imagine. God’s emotions moved him to action. God’s sorrow led to destroying injustice. 

The thoughts, attitudes, and actions of violent and unfeeling people very much trouble God – to the point of being heartsickIt is our emotional makeup which connects us and bonds us with the divine. The inability to feel is the ultimate disconnect from God. 

Jesus also felt deeply about a great many things – so much so that he died from a broken heart. Recall that ithe seminal Sermon on the Mount Christ’s first words to the large gathering of people were: 

“Blessed are those who mourn.” (Matthew 5:4)  

We underestimate the importance and the power of emotions to our peril. Biblical writers often purposefully contrast differing persons in their stories. In today’s Old Testament lesson, that contrast is most vivid between God and wicked humanity. Humanity had gotten to a point where they felt nothing. The violent behavior was a direct result of their emotional selves split-off from the rest of them. People were bifurcated, their humanity chopped as if a meat cleaver separated their feelings from themselves. Whenever we observe belligerent bullying, hate speech, meanness, and oppression – there you find a paucity of emotions. It is not the presence of feelings that brings about wickedness; it is the lack of emotional awareness and the absence of feelings which is the highway to a watery grave. 

We are in the “Last Days,” that is, the time before the final event in the Christian tradition’s understanding of historyChrist will return to judge the living and the dead. The righteous will enjoy God’s presence forever; the wicked, not really. These days are too often characterized by the kinds of behavior which lack the emotional depth of godly love and a heart of compassion: 

There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” (2 Timothy 3:1-4, NIV) 

For me, learning to name my emotions and to observe where I carry those emotions in my body has been most helpful in connecting with my feelings – and connecting with my GodAnd, I must add, such an emotional awareness and kinship with feelings has brought personal wellness and compassionate ministry to others. 

So, receive this blessing today: 

The eyes of Jesus gaze upon you, stirring his heart with compassion. 

The gaze of Christ sees your heart, your joy and sorrow. 

The gaze of Christ sees your future, filled with the healing of emotions expressed. 

The eyes of Jesus gaze upon you, filling his heart with adoration. Amen. 

Psalm 102:1-17 – Depressed

69b36-woman2bsilhouette

Hear my prayer, O Lord;
let my cry come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call.

For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
I am too wasted to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning
my bones cling to my skin.
I am like an owl of the wilderness,
like a little owl of the waste places.
I lie awake;
I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.

But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever;
your name endures to all generations.
You will rise up and have compassion on Zion,
for it is time to favor it;
the appointed time has come.
For your servants hold its stones dear,
and have pity on its dust.
The nations will fear the name of the Lord,
and all the kings of the earth your glory.
For the Lord will build up Zion;
he will appear in his glory.
He will regard the prayer of the destitute,
and will not despise their prayer. (NRSV)

Author and teacher Marianne Williamson told the story (most likely apocryphal) concerning a study of a group of chimpanzees.  Supposedly, researchers observed primate behavior which correlates to human depression, such as eating at odd times, spending lots of time alone, and staying on the outskirts of the group. This behavior was observed in about 10% of the chimps, which happens to be near to the percentage of Americans who show symptoms of depression.  The scientists removed the depressed chimps for six months, to see how this would affect the behavior of the other 90%.  You might think that in the absence of the depressed individuals, the remaining majority would produce another 10% of depressed chimps. Instead, when scientists returned six months later, all the non-depressed chimps were dead. The interpretation and conclusion of the study is that the depressed chimps had functioned as a kind of early warning system, continually looking out for predators, tropical storms, and other threats to the group. Without that system in place, the group was doomed.

Whether the study can be substantiated, or is a fabrication, for those who attend to the inner person and know there is much more to us than physical pathology, this account of chimpanzees resonates deeply. Rather than being merely a problem to be fixed, depression can serve as an asset to society, providing a critical mass of individuals uniquely suited to guarding against danger. That means there is an upside to depressed persons – they serve an important role.

Reading today’s psalm, especially if you read it aloud, you can feel the expression of deep lament borne from a person going through a major depression. Although there are persons in the church and society who believe depression is a sin, we get no such judgment from Holy Scripture. Depression just is.

hope in the darkness

Consider the following biblical characters: When the prophet Elijah became depressed, it served as a sign and warning that there was something horribly awry in ancient Israel.  Jezebel was the wicked queen, pulling the strings in a nation connected in a web of evil which permeated the land. When Moses became despondent time and again, it pointed to the faithless network of apostasy that kept rearing its golden calf in the life of the Israelite people.

And when we, as contemporary persons, become depressed it can and should serve as a billboard to others that something is terribly askew among us, and not just within the individual.

Please know that I fully believe depression ought to be addressed and treated so that the depressed person can come around again to a sense of happiness and hopefulness. Yet, there are also emotionally “healthy” people who try to push pills, hurry along therapy, and pronounce exhortations to the emotionally ill people around them. It’s almost as if depressed people make others uncomfortable and uneasy.

If depression points to societal ills, not just personal sickness, then it makes sense that non-depressed people want depressed people to get healthy now, because then they don’t have to take a good hard look at the systemic problems of our society and culture.  When we rush to make someone feel better, typically the person we really want to help is ourselves.

Depression and emotional struggles must be deeply felt, examined, and carefully dealt with. Thus, enter the psalmist. The sheer volume of laments in the biblical Psalter ought to clue us in that this is important work. Sadness and grief can get trapped in us like monkeys in a cage. Reciting psalms of lament can help express what is within us and serve as the key which unlocks us to freedom. Dealing with depression is a process. It takes time and therapy, perseverance and patience, to heal.  Learning new ways to accept, cope, and transcend are difficult – they take time. Cheap hope is a switch which can be easily flipped; genuine hope is a medieval gate that needs effort to open.

While the depressed among us learn to hope again, the majority who are depression-free ought to pay attention. We need also to examine ourselves, our families, our organizations, our workplaces, and our churches to determine what is awry and create new systems and new ways of living together on planet earth.  After all, who wants to make a monkey of themselves?

Holy God, please observe all who live with depression and hold them in your good strong hands. Send them your love through therapists, pastors, friends, and family. Grant them assurance of your love in their dark hours. In your mercy, hear my prayer concerning the depressed persons in my life. I feel powerless and inadequate to help. I am frustrated because depression can be so unpredictable. Help me find the resilience and resources I need to be with them during their time of pain. And, teach me what I need to learn in this darkness. Through Jesus Christ, my Savior, I pray. Amen.