Psalm 79 – Facing Trauma

Raise Up by Hank Willis Johnson in the Nova Southeastern University Art Museum, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Our God, foreign nations
    have taken your land,
    disgraced your temple,
    and left Jerusalem in ruins.
They have fed the bodies
of your servants
    to flesh-eating birds;
    your loyal people are food
    for savage animals.
All Jerusalem is covered
    with their blood,
    and there is no one left
    to bury them.
Every nation around us
    sneers and makes fun.

Our Lord, will you keep on
    being angry?
    Will your angry feelings
    keep flaming up like fire?
Get angry with those nations
that don’t know you
    and won’t worship you!
They have gobbled down
Jacob’s descendants
    and left the land in ruins.

Don’t make us pay for the sins
    of our ancestors.
    Have pity and come quickly!
    We are completely helpless.
Our God, you keep us safe.
    Now help us! Rescue us.
    Forgive our sins
    and bring honor to yourself.

Why should nations ask us,
    “Where is your God?”
Let us and the other nations
    see you take revenge
    for your servants who died
    a violent death.

Listen to the prisoners groan!
Let your mighty power save all
    who are sentenced to die.
    Each of those nations sneered
    at you, our Lord.
Now let others sneer at them,
    seven times as much.
    Then we, your people,
    will always thank you.
We are like sheep
    with you as our shepherd,
    and all generations
    will hear us praise you. (CEV)

Yes, you are in the right place. No, this is not yesterday’s post. The Revised Common Lectionary Daily Scripture readings include a psalm reading every day. What is more, the same psalm is read three days in a row. This is because psalms are designed to be repeatedly used. So, today, I continue reflecting on this psalm….

The psalmist was full of emotion as he crafted his words. Reflecting on the tragic and horrific takeover of Jerusalem and its destruction, he cried out in spiritual and emotional pain concerning the trashing of God’s temple and Name, and the physical and verbal violence executed on the people. The psalmist wanted the victimization to stop and the victimizers to feel God’s wrath.

This psalm is raw and real, an expression of the true self. Here there is no pie-in-the-sky positive thinking with singing about always looking on the bright side of life. It is agonizing grief in all its misery and disgrace. Thus, therein lies the path to healing: To connect with the true self, refusing the pretensions of the false self, expressing the real lived feelings and thoughts of honest wounds.

Illumination by American sculptor Paige Bradley

The alternative only presses further pain into the soul. The false self, seeking to takeover and make one feel better, engages in a devil’s pact by ignoring the aching spiritual doubt and emotional injury within to have temporary reprieve from the troubled spirit. The road to renewed and lasting happiness comes not through the false self but the true self’s recognition of the event(s) in all their foulness and degradation. It is a hard road to walk, yet we must travel it if we are to live in the light of truth, joy, and peace.

You and I will not find God in the false self. One of the great tragedies of the human condition is that, when having experienced trauma, we hustle to obtain something we already possess. We might believe God is not there, or simply does not care. As one becomes alienated from the Lord, there increasingly becomes self-distancing. Disconnected from life-giving divinity, self-loathing gradually replaces self-awareness, and thus, self-compassion.

If at any point, we begin to associate and then fuse self with our traumatic experience(s) then the inner person weakens and becomes detached from the spiritual resources needed to heal. We are not our events. We are people created in God’s image and inherently worthy of love, compassion, kindness, goodness, and healing. We were not made for death and destruction but for life and connection.

The demonic termites of contempt might eat away at our humanity, yet there is always a way to exterminate them – through telling our story, as the psalmist did, with emotional flavor and full honesty. The true self is there; we just might need to dig a little deeper to find her.

So, if you notice that you tend to avoid planning for self-care; engage regularly in self-pity; or, swear at yourself under your breath with self-hatred; then it is high time for the false self to quit calling the shots and to bring up the true self. Internal conflict is not resolved through avoidance; it comes through external voicing of one’s story to another who listens with care.

The psalmist spoke to both God and God’s people. His story came from the gut, the place where both deep loathing and deep compassion come from. If one has already been tortured by a traumatic experience, the torture will continue from the false self unless the true self asserts herself and seeks awareness, mercy, and healing.

Stories are meant to be told. And they need to be uttered when the storyteller is ready and not when the listener is. Through the voicing of their ordeal, victims of human-inflicted suffering need to hear that God is just and will right the wrong things in this world. They need some hope of healing and some assurance that their injury will not go unanswered.

This can be tricky business because the act of proclaiming one’s story and the reception of that message by another might easily become a vengeful justification for intolerance and malicious retribution. Therefore, the psalmist appealed to God, not fellow humans, for justice. We are to leave room for God’s wrath without taking matters into our own hands. (Romans 12:17-21)

So, avoid isolation from God, others, even yourself. Seek help, both divine and human. Tell your story when you are ready. Face the terrible pain. These are the things the psalmist did to deal with his own trauma. The true self acknowledges this and, with full awareness, steps into the future with faith.

Lord Christ, you came into the world as one of us, and suffered as we do. As I go through the trials of life, help me to realize that you are with me at all times and in all things; that I have no secrets from you; and that your loving grace enfolds me for eternity. In the security of your embrace I pray. Amen.

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.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 – Longing for the Lord

The Hand of God by Korean artist Yongsung Kim

Please listen, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph’s descendants like a flock.
O God, enthroned above the cherubim,
    display your radiant glory
    to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh.
Show us your mighty power.
    Come to rescue us!

Turn us again to yourself, O God.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved.
O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies,
    how long will you be angry with our prayers?
You have fed us with sorrow
    and made us drink tears by the bucketful.
You have made us the scorn of neighboring nations.
    Our enemies treat us as a joke.

Turn us again to yourself, O God of Heaven’s Armies.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved….

Strengthen the man you love,
    the son of your choice.
Then we will never abandon you again.
    Revive us so we can call on your name once more.

Turn us again to yourself, O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved. (NLT)

Let us continually keep in mind that the psalms are quite Jewish. Yes, I often refer to the psalms as the Church’s Prayer Book and unabashedly see them through Christian eyes. Yet, the psalter, at its core, are prayers and songs of the Jewish experience.

The deep longings and yearnings of the Jewish people within a constant stream of hardship, difficulty, and persecution give voice to all humanity. In other words, the bearing of the Jewish soul as the people of God is the crying out on behalf of us all.

The Jews know a thing or two about lament. Today’s psalm is a lament, a prayer, longing for God to come and restore Israel, to no longer look upon them with anger.  The people knew in their exposed vulnerability that they needed God.  It is the Lord who would come to save and bring a revitalized nation.

Amid awful circumstances and emotional pain, it can be hard to focus with concentrated prayer. The Jews also help us here because they crafted and arranged the psalms in such a way as to enable and foster recall and memory. So, where many of us Gentiles can be rather more like pagans babbling on in our distress, the Jewish psalms offer us the ability of short, succinct, and staccato prayers. Early Christians called them “breath prayers.” 

Throughout the day we can utter “Stir up your power, O God; come to save us.”  The intention of saying it repeatedly in a day is not to get God’s attention because we already have it. No, the purpose is to connect us with Divine resources for deliverance. The purpose is to be in constant touch and continual communion with the One who can ultimately restore, renew, revitalize, and reform the world with justice and righteousness.  It is to be longing for the flourishing of the earth and its inhabitants again, and to enjoy walking with God in the garden of fellowship, peace, and goodwill. It is to be restored.

Restoration is a beautiful thing. I rarely watch makeover shows on television, but if I am channel surfing and catch an old house which seems best suited for the wrecking ball getting restored to its original charm and beauty, I am hooked.  We as people seem to resonate deeply with things being repaired and rejuvenated to looking brand new again.

Again, the Jewish people go before us, through the psalms, with the vision to see the old become new. Whereas some may get lost in the drab discouragement of a gray and dreary environment, forgetting the original shine of how things once were, Asaph, the consummate Jewish song leader, guided the people in remembering how God’s people enjoyed the covenant and the promises of God.  But over time the relationship was not maintained and cared for; the people gradually slid into disrepair.  Centuries of neglect brought a situation where it seemed the only recourse was to do away with the people and begin again.

I certainly do not want to make God angry. I would much rather learn my lesson from the Jewish experience throughout the millennia and enjoy Divine favor. I would also like this old fallen world to be restored to her original beauty. So, we must come to God – not once – but again and again, over, and over. Like the hammer of perseverance, pounding nail after nail, so we must offer our prayers morning, noon, and night, day after day, crying out to God with the great cry of the Jewish people:  “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!”

Merciful God of all nations bring restoration to our lives, our families, our faith communities, our workplaces, our human institutions, our neighborhoods, and our shared world. Send your Holy Spirit so that we might enjoy seasons of blessing again.  Restore, renew, revive, and rejuvenate our disordered love.  May your face shine upon us once again through the mighty name of Jesus.  Amen.

Psalm 17:1-7, 15 – Hear My Prayer!

Lament

Lord, hear my prayer for justice.
I am calling loudly to you.
I am being honest in what I say,
so please listen to my prayer.
You will make the right decision,
because you can see the truth.
You were with me all night
and looked deep into my heart.
You questioned me and found that
I did not say or do anything wrong.
Unlike most people, I have obeyed your commands,
so I have never been like those who are cruel and evil.
I have followed your way.
My feet never left your path.
Every time I call to you, God, you answer me.
So listen to me now, and hear what I say.
Show your amazing kindness
and rescue those who depend on you.
Use your great power
and protect them from their enemies.

I have done only what is right, so I will see your face….
And seeing you, I will be fully satisfied. (ERV)

This is one of David’s personal psalms of lament.  It is a prayer forged during a time of severe adversity with enemies who sought to snuff-out his life.  The psalm is a plea uttered with the hope that God would indeed vindicate him and subdue those who wanted to harm him.  It is a lament that wickedness exists and often gets its way; and, it is grief over the constant threats that swirled around David.

It was David’s prayer that with all the heartless and arrogant violence continually in his life that God would keep him as the apple of his eye and hide him in the shadow of his wings. Indeed, perhaps no better prayer could be said in those times when there are people who make untrue accusations and only wish harm to be done to you, that God would be gracious, merciful, and kind through rescuing us from both bodily harm and spiritual abuse.  It is in the times when angry simpletons spew their worst that we need to confidently know that God watches over his people with affection and cares for them as a mother hen protects her chicks.

You and I are precious to God.  We can and ought to run to him when there is trouble and feel no shame in loudly crying for fairness and justice.  The Lord is a benevolent God showing firm commitment to those who seek truth, loving actions, and merciful words.  When going through a difficult time in which another or others accuse you of wrongdoing and you know you are innocent, the proper prescription is to pray this very psalm repeatedly at night before bed.  For we all know that sleep can be elusive and hard to come by in such circumstances.  Perhaps, along with David, you will be able to say: I have done what is right. I will see your face. I will be fully satisfied.

Arise, Lord God Almighty!  Deliver my soul from the wicked and subdue them!  I seek refuge in you, O Savior; show me your steadfast love as I cry out to you for justice.  Incline your ear to hear me, and answer when I call through the name of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.