Psalm 13 – How Long, O Lord?

The Scream by Edvard Munch
“The Scream” by Edvard Munch, 1893.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I make decisions alone
with sorrow in my heart day after day?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look at me! Answer me, O Lord my God!
Light up my eyes,
or else I will die
and my enemy will say, “I have overpowered him.”
My opponents will rejoice because I have been shaken.

But I trust your mercy.
My heart finds joy in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord because he has been good to me. (GW)

Faith is more than the mind’s affirmation of theological beliefs. Faith is also visceral, an expression from deep in the gut about what is going on around us. For faith to be truly faith it needs to hold the whole person, not merely the brain.

Today’s psalm is the reaction of a person of faith to God when the world as they knew it was crumbling and broken. This is a psalm of lament which moves and deepens the faith of the worshiper.

When the world around us changes and all seems horribly awry, we understandably become disoriented – we lose our normal bearings and feel confused and lost.

One of the simplest observations we can make about this psalm, along with all psalms of lament, is that, whether the content is ethically pure or not, the words of the psalmist directed toward God reflect the pain and agony of  people in the middle of world-shattering circumstances. In such dire situations, there are no simplistic answers or easy diagnoses of problems. Complicated layers of grief exist, and mere cerebral responses will always fall short of adequately being in the present moment, sitting with emotions, and getting in touch with the gut.

I am leery of folks who quickly affirm trust in God when a terrible event has just occurred. Bypassing the gut and the heart cannot bring a whole person response to that event and will inevitably result in a cheap faith which cannot support the immensity of the situation. Even worse, it leads to a bootstrap theology where people are expected to pull themselves up in a free-willpower way that is impossible to even do. Sometimes failure of faith comes not because of a person’s weakness but because the faith being espoused is not faith, at all.

Biblical faith expresses weakness, need, help, curiosity, and doubt with a healthy dose of emotional flavor and visceral reaction.

If we had just one psalm of lament as an example, that would be enough. In fact, we have dozens of them, with more sprinkled throughout Holy Scripture. We even have an entire book of the Bible, Lamentations, a deep reflection of the prophet Jeremiah’s grief.

So, let us now be honest with ourselves and each other. All of us, at one time or another, have given a cry of “How long, O Lord!” There are times when our prayers seem unheard and unnoticed, as if they only bounce off the ceiling and fall flat. There are hard circumstances which continue to move along unabated with evil seeming to mock us. We long for divine intervention, we long for deliverance, we long for healing – and when it does not come our disappointment and frustration boils over into an unmitigated cry of wondering where God is in all the damned thick crud.

When a person and/or a group of people are traumatized not once but over-and-over again, how can we not cry aloud, “How long, O Lord!?” When despair settles in the spirit, disappointment seeps in the soul, and depression becomes our daily bread, how can we not muster up the voice that yells, “How long, O Lord!?” When powerful people cause the lives of others to be downtrodden and despised, how can we not scream, “How long, O Lord!?” When the covert actions of others demean and denigrate, leaving us with private pain which no one sees, how can we not bring forth the words, “How long, O Lord!?” If you have never uttered this kind of wondering about God, then perhaps a profound disconnect with your own spirit exists.

A full orb faith names the awful events and sits with the feelings surrounding those events with God.

Psalm 13 is important because it gives us words when the bottom falls out of our lives and everything is upside-down. This psalm helps us admit that life is not as well-ordered as a simple Sunday School faith may pretend. The psalm acknowledges that life is terribly messy, and the psalmist protests to heaven that this quagmire of injustice is plain unfair. What is more, this psalm helps move the sufferer to a new place.

God is big enough to handle everything we throw at him — our pain, our anger, our questions, our doubts. Genuine biblical faith is comfortable challenging God. And God is there, listening, even if we cannot perceive it. Just because we might need to endure adversity does not mean there is something wrong with us, or God.

We likely will not get an answer to our “how long?” We will get something else: mercy. Mercy is compassion shown to another when it is within one’s power to punish. If we widen our horizon a bit, we will observe a God who cares:

“The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives.” (2 Peter 3:9, CEB)

The only thing better than the joy of personal salvation is the joy of many people’s deliverance and collective emancipation. Patience, perseverance, and endurance through hardship will require expressions of faith with words of affirmation, along with words of agony. The psalms help us with both.

Lord God Almighty, I pray for the forgotten and the unseen – the stranger, the outcast, the poor and homeless – may they be remembered and seen by you.

Merciful God, I pray for those who struggle with mental illness, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation – may there be resources to help, enough staff employed, and finances given, toward mental health services. May there be basic human kindness available for the hurting.

Compassionate God, I pray for those who wrestle with sorrow – may they know your comfort within the dark thoughts which currently seem to triumph.

Attentive Lord, I pray for the crestfallen and the ones considered fallen by those around them – may they receive your restoration and reconciling grace. Protect them from judgment and shield them with your mercy.

Lord of all creation, I trust in your steadfast love and rely upon your infinite grace. May our tears turn to songs of joy, to the glory of Jesus Christ. 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.

Psalm 17

            This is one of David’s personal psalms of lament.  It is a prayer forged in the midst of adversaries who sought 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; it is a grieving over the constant threats that swirled around David.
 
            It was David’s prayer that with all the heartless and arrogant violence that was 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:  “Keep me as the apple your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.”  It is in the times when angry simpletons spew their worst that we need to confidently know that the 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 run to him when there is trouble.  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:  “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.”
 

 

            Arise, O LORD!  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 help.  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.

Psalm 71:1-6


            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; and, 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 in order 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 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.”
             Today’s psalm is one of lament, 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 more and more depend upon God.  
             I have personally encountered far too many people hitting the aging process that 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.  Based upon the psalms I would 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, he 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 deity 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.