have you forsaken me.
-Last Words of Christ-
You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land
– Matthew 27:45-
Concentration camps in Chechnya for gay men. Babies dying from gas attacks and there’s nowhere for their moms to take them to safety. More police assaults on minorities. More bold anti-Semitism, more white supremacy, more wink-wink-nudge-nudge rape jokes, sexism, violent transphobia. War and more war and rumors of war.
A man executed by the government 2000 years ago for saying that there is another way for the Kingdom of God to break into the world besides conquering the Other with brute force.
What a Friday to watch Jesus die.
It’s hard to stay present to suffering. It’s hard to stay present to the suffering of the world. I start to skim the newspaper because there’s nothing that I can do and it feels easier to tune out and shut down than continue to engage the calculated and reckless evil that seems to bleed out all over the world we live in and love so much.
It’s hard to stay present to my own suffering, too. Christianity doesn’t always give us good words for staying in the moment, for planting ourselves in the suffering and feeling it, without skipping past it to the resurrection, hopping right past Good Friday to Easter Sunday in a single sermon.
That’s why I need Psalm 88 so badly.
There is nothing like Psalm 88 in the entire Bible. It’s the only lament Psalm that stays in lament, that starts in pain and ends in pain and doesn’t give a penny of hope in the middle.
Your dread assaults destroy me.
You have made me a thing of horror to my companions.
I am like the slain that lie in the grave.
I am like those cut off from your hand.
Wretched and close to death, I suffer your terrors!
I am desperate.
The Psalmist doesn’t just feel the pain of God’s absence, he wrestles with the possibility that God is the one who has sent this suffering to him.
I feel like this is God, she seems to whisper, then, louder,
I feel like God is one hurting me.
She feels like God is the one sending the pain. God took away her friends. God threw her in a pit. God has cut her off.
At worst, God is the attacker. At best, God is silent.
But what I feel most while reading this Psalm is the confusion. The psalmist has no idea why he suffers. He doesn’t see a pattern of retribution or purpose in any of the violence that he believes his Deity is inflicting on him. He can’t pin his suffering on sin, either individual or national. There’s no explanation for the suffering. There is no answer, only confusion.
And even though – if we’re brave enough to leave behind our platitudes – even though every Christian has walked through a time of confusion and fear like this, we still skip this Psalm.
We don’t skip all the lament Psalms! In 2017, the Church loves the lament Psalms. We love them mostly because of their “authenticity”, their raw emotion, and they let us fiddle around with pain and suffering and remind us to be honest with God and ourselves… but then, they always end in praise. They start with anger and sadness and then, by the end, wind their way around to praising God somehow, even if they’re just remembering how they praised God in the past. Things are bad, they say, but one day I will get up and praise God again.
This is the only Psalm that doesn’t do that. It ends, literally, in hopelessness – the last word of this Psalm in Hebrew is darkness. So we don’t put this psalm in the lectionary, and we skip it in Bible study, because if we’re going to talk honestly about suffering, we still want to find the “good news” at the end. We want to be honest about the pain but we also want to wind around back to the praise at the end. Because ending in darkness – that doesn’t feel faithful to us. It feels like a lack of faith. It feels like a lack of trust.
But Jesus hung on a cross and screamed out in confusion “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The faithfulness of Jesus Christ included the gasp of confusion, the terror of abandonment, the moment when He didn’t see the face of His Father God and cried out why.
Our faithfulness can include that, too.
If we don’t understand the suffering – we stop trying to pretend that we can figure it out, that if only we lay all the parts out in a row we could see a pattern in the pain.
If we think that God is hurting us for no reason – we say it straight to God’s face, without apologizing or theologizing.
If we can’t remember the last time that we saw the goodness of God in the land of the living – we end our Psalm in darkness without apology and without tacking a half-hearted forced platitude to the end of our song.
This Psalm gives us permission to feel the confusion and sorrow and anger in every part of our bones and to feel it without guilt. Because there’s nothing faithful about pretending we see patterns when we don’t. There’s nothing faithful about pretending we’re trusting God when really we’ve stopped engaging the problem because we’re scared of what we’ll find.
Faithfulness doesn’t mean pretending to have faith when we’re surrounded by darkness.
Faithfulness means coming back, again and again, to bang against the door of heaven and demand to be heard.
Faithfulness is Christ on the Cross, bleeding out alone, asking God why.
God, what a world we are walking through today. What long, dark days. Give Your Church words to stay in Good Friday, to join all creation as she groans, to have the courage to speak faithful words of despair from our pulpits and in our prayers.