Sunday, October 21, 2018

Honesty to God in the midst of dispair: reflections on Psalm 88 (psalm 88, 2 Peter 5:6-9)

Recently I've been experimenting with black and white photography and trying to capture the stark reality of an urban suburban landscape. But as I contemplated Psalm 88 I was also aware of places where life seemed to grow in difficult situations... grass growing in a gutter, a weed bathed in sunlight (glowing even) high up on an old brisk fa├žade... and a black bird  singing its heart out a top an old cracked brick... seeming impervious to the fact that for most Kiwi's we now view such brickwork as an earthquake hazard... they are images that go well with Psalm 88... 
We may be more used to the idea of darkness as a friend from that Simon and Garfunkel classic the sound of silence with its opening line “hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again”… than the closing line of a psalm, but that is exactly how psalm 88 finishes ..with the psalmist saying darkness…darkness is my closest friend. It is according to EM Blaiklock the ‘saddest and darkest psalm in the whole psalter. IT is one wail of sorrow from beginning to end.” You could say that from go to woe… well it’s just all woe. Another commentator says… its uniqueness is in its bleakness. “Psalm 88 is unmatched in its tone of darkness and despair”.  The only glimmer of light is the first line, “Lord, you are the God who saves me”, kind of like the last comforting rays of the sunset before the long dark night envelops the psalmist as he waits for God.

Yet, Psalm 88 is as canonical as Psalm 23. One of the amazing things about the psalms is that within them the whole of human experience is raised up before God.  AS such it is “proper that it should contain the record of an hour so dark that no relief comes” (EM Blaiklock). From the introduction to this psalm we see that it was put to a tune, it was a song that was designed for corporate worship, so it was meant not only as a personal expression of suffering and waiting for God to act but as a corporate one as well, drawing together people to acknowledge a shared pain and longing and disquiet. I could imagine the exiles by the rivers of Babylon singing this sort of psalm as they wept, as they remembered Zion. It reverberates with the cry of people who have suffered oppression down through the ages.

It echoes the cries of people of faith who have wrestled with unanswered prayer. In the midst of running an international prayer movement, Pete Greig’s wife suffered a serious medical problem and it seemed no amount of prayer helped. He wrote a book about this experience called, ‘God on Mute”. In it he includes an appendix called “heroes of the faith and unanswered prayer”. It lists quotes from biblical and historical heroes of the faith as they have wrestled with suffering and the seeming silence of heaven. Missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, on hearing about the massacre of 58 of his missionaries and 21 children… ‘I cannot read; I cannot think; I cannot even pray; but I can trust”  St john of the Cross… “the Dark Night of the Soul… in this time of dryness, spiritual people undergo great trials… they believe that spiritual blessings are a thing of the past and that God has abandoned them”. Mother Theresa “ I feel that God does not want me, that God is not God, and that God does not exist.” CS Lewis reflecting on the death of his wife… “what chokes every prayer and every hope is the memory of all the prayers Joy and I offered and all the false hopes we had…  step by step we were led up the garden path.’ Time after time, when he seemed most gracious he was really preparing the next torture.” But these people are heroes of the faith, they are people of great faith.   If we are honest, as followers of Jesus, in a good but fallen world, Psalm 88 is our song as well, not that we have lost our faith, that we do not trust God, but that at some stage in our spiritual journey there is a good chance we have found ourselves in that dark place of psalm 88.

Maybe that’s not the stuff you want to hear on a long holiday weekend, but in our season of prayer this year we are looking at surprising spiritual disciplines, and Psalm 88 invites us to look at honesty in prayer as a spiritual discipline. It is raw and its real, and I don’t want to do it a disservice by just turning it as a text book for praying when it’s difficult, or making it a series of points, dispensing a couple of platitudes and pat answers.  So these are more just hopefully helpful reflections.

In fact the psalm comes from a place where there seems to be no simple answer, it’s part of the wisdom literature in the Hebrew Scriptures that wrestles with the question of evil, why bad things happen to good people. It has many similarities with the book of Job, the Psalmist is sick and facing death and disaster, he feels like Job, that God is unjustly turned away from him and he finds no comfort in friends and neighbors, in fact they simply add to his suffering. While there are good theological answers to the question of suffering and evil in the end the people of God resort to poetry and song to bring out the depth of that suffering.

The  psalm is written by Heman the Ezrahite, and when I read that I couldn’t help thinking about another He-man. The Maters of the Universe was a range of toys put out by Mattel in the 1980’s. It was the first range of toys that a comic book range, animated TV show and film were written around and produced to specifically market the toys. The key hero was He-man and his catch cry was “I have the Power” he was unrealistically muscled and was marketed as the “the strongest man in the universe”, able to battle evil and injustice in his own strength, or at least with the help of a magic sword. But that is a plastic toy,  a made up myth, maybe the first ever myth of western consumerism, simply to sell product it’s not a reality. We can end up having a plastic unreal faith, with no real substance and depth.  Part of the honesty of prayer as a spiritual discipline, is to recognize times in our lives, and situations that leave us perplexed and feeling like our prayers simply echo off the ceiling and go no further than our voice can carry. We are used to hiding our doubts and questions, our wondering about the power and goodness of God. We need to be willing to be like Heman the Ezrahite, not He-man the figurine, and cry out in those times to God., strength comes from honesty… I think that is what the recent openness about mental health issues and struggles is teaching us again.

One of the things this psalm does is allow us to know we are not alone in wrestling with God, we are not alone in facing seemingly insurmountable difficulties, we are not alone in feeling alone and unloved. We are not alone in still having faith and trusting in God even in the face of what may seem like God’s absence.

Eighty eight is what Walter Brueggemann calls a psalm of disorientation, when what we believe about God does not equate with what we are experiencing,” as U2 say in their song Peace on Earth “when hope and history won’t rhyme”. The Psalmist sums it up well in verse 7 by saying that “you have overwhelmed me with all your waves”. You get the picture of being caught by wave after wave, till you are struggling for breath and can’t find which way is up.

The second thing is that even in the absence of an answer from God the psalmist does not abandon his hope. As we said before the only glimmer of light in this psalm is in the first line “lord, you are the God who saves me”. What enables the Psalmist to continue in his dark place is what he knows about the person and the character of God. What he knows from the scriptures and history of God’s dealing with his people and what he may have experienced in his own life. That is the call to us as well, what we know of God’s goodness, what we have seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the promise of the Holy Spirit’s presence with us, is not changed by the situation, it is not voided like a dodgy warranty by our emotions and feelings, it is not  made untrue by our personal experience. Pete Grieg says that during his time of unanswered prayer he even tried being an atheist, but he didn’t make a good atheist because he kept telling God he didn’t believe in him anymore.

What shapes our understanding of the world is not our experience of it, good or bad, but our understanding of God. Our prayer life needs to resound with and be shaped and directed by our understanding of God through the reading and study of scripture. Martin Luther in a letter to his barber talked about the fact that he does not trust himself to pray his own prayers but each day his prayer came out of his scripture reading, alongside that he said that he used the Lord’s Prayer as the model for his prayer. It is this finding ourselves deeply rooted in the biblical understanding of God that enables to wrestle with the sense of his absence in the hard and dark times. It does not lessen our experience or our pain or disorientation rather it allows us to move through that to a reorientation and a deeper faith.

The other thing is the psalmist’s sense that God is not answering does not stop him from praying. He has a regular discipline of morning and evening prayer.   Day and night he cries to God I says in verse 2. “I call to you, Lord, every day; I spread my hands out to you”, in verse 9, “but I cry for help, Lord, in the morning my prayer comes before you.”  In verse 13. Keeping that relationship is of central importance to him, regardless of the outcome. That is the way that Walter Bruggeman talks of another type of Psalm within the psalter, psalms of reorientation, where people of faith have wrestled with the question and the lack of answer and in it they have found that some peace and comfort is to be found in the abiding presence of God, weather or not the conflict or problem has been resolved. In the psalms of ascent, Psalm 130 is a lament like psalm 88, where the writers longing for God to answer his cries is pictured being like a watchman on the city walls staring off into the dark, waiting for the hope and safety of the dawn. In the very next Psalm almost as a response, the writer says he has learned to be still and content like a weaned child on its mother’s knee. No more the frantic calling out for its needs to be meet but simply content with its mother’s presence to comfort. In his letter to the Philippians, paul summarises this reorientation when he says I have learned to be content when I have a lot or when I have nothing, when I am hungry or when I’ve had my full because I have learned the secret to contentment ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. While this passage is often quoted with the emphasis on the “I”, “I can do all things”… “I have the Power”… I’m sure the emphasis for Paul is on the through Christ who strengthens me… the abiding presence of Christ.

The motto of the life boat service on the ragged and storm tossed coast of the Atlantic “Is we must go out”, they are there for the very times when the rest of us are wanting to be safe and secure in on shore at home, in the worst of waves and the worst of storms where they fear for their lives, and others lives are in danger. It’s not what they do in those times that means they are able to operate and go about their life saving duties in the roughest of conditions, rather it is the training and the training and the long hours they out into doing their routines and their jobs when its calm weather and good seas that enables them to do what they do. While it says in James that as we face hard times our faith is made strong, and perfected, the developing of good spiritual disciplines is what keeps us persevering through the hard.

There is an element in Psalm 88 as well of emotional release. There is a phycological side to prayer. Being honest with God is a way that those emotions and that form that knot at the core of our being can be released. Once they are expressed and out there they can be addressed and dealt with. Another psalm that I wrestle with is Psalm 109. The psalmist calls out to God in righteous anger as one who has been wronged, and he calls on God to bring justice on his enemies in no uncertain terms. It’s the kind of prayer that makes you think that we believe in a wrathful and vengeful God. But as I have meditated on it, I see it as the psalmist praying knowing that God can be trusted with his anger and pain and trusted to act in a right way. Christian folk singer Barry McGuire, says that Christians are called to be shock absorbers in the world, to take the anger and the bad in the world and not to simply pass it back or on. Neither are we to internalise it and let it fester there, but to be able to pass it God and return Good for evil. That is one of the things that we are able to do with Prayer. God’s reply to psalm 109, is not the flash of lightening and a pile of ashes, but rather we see it that Christ stepped into our world, in Jesus Christ, he showed us a better way, the way of love, and then died on the cross to forgive us all, and was raised to life so we could have a fresh start and new life in Christ.

When we come to studying the scriptures one of the important things that we need to do is to view a verse in the context of a passage and a passage in the context of its wider work, and we can often forget that when we come to Psalms they seem to stand alone, but the fact is that they are placed in their sequence by an editor or complier. Psalm 88 comes between psalm 87 and 89…I know that sounds rather inane, but it finds itself between a short strong affirmation of God’s abiding love for his people and for Zion, and a long prayer that talks of God’s faithfulness and sovereignty through all generations and all circumstances. If we are honest about our lives and our prayer life we recognise that they are very much bound by the limitations of time and space. The hear and the now, and we find it hard to see beyond the night to the new day, the hard time to the hope of fresh days and fresh starts. But that is how this psalm is placed in the book.

EM Blaiklock says that Psalm 88 has been seen as a gethsemane prayer, when we look and all we can see is the cross and death. In fact it reflects the belief in old testament Judaism that death was final, a belief that was in Jesus day expressed by a party within the Jewish faith called the sadducees, but that as Christians we can look beyond that to an empty tomb, that we know that God’s plans go beyond this little day, that there is a new page waiting to be written, that while we may find it a dark night for our soul, the hope is that our future is in and with Christ.

Which brings us to our new testament reading from 1 peter 5 and how I want to finish this reflection. Peter tells us to humble ourselves before the Lord, under God’s almighty hand… to realise that God is sovereign and in control and can be trusted with the whole of life, both its highs and its lows, and that we should cast all our anxiety on God… because he cares for us.

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