Praying the dangerous ones
When I was learning to preach, and I would come to a text and not be able to figure out my way in, Andy was learning to be a theologian, and he would prompt me to ask a particular question of the scripture. This question, he would remind me, would surely reorient me out of whatever rabbit hole I had gone down trying to figure out what to say, and return me to the purpose of the sermon, and the bible itself.
The question is: Who is this God? And what is God up to here? (Two questions, really, but he’s always struggled with run-on sentences, so we're going to go with them as one).
This question has shaped my faith more than any other. I’ve found that it opens every scripture passage, because surely every single part of the bible is trying to say something about who God is, and trying to show something about what God does. Whether it is a historical accounting of an ancient battle, a graphic love song, a miracle of Jesus, a letter of Paul, or apocalyptic poetry, the reason it was told and written down, preserved and canonized, read and preached, is because it tells us something of who God is and what God does.
This text, in particular, is a fascinating study. A Psalm of David, in which he spells out his utter despair and anguish, with vivid and terrible imagery, and accuses God of abandoning him, it opens with these decidedly accusatory words: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
It doesn’t say, MyGod, HAVE you abandoned me?
It says WHY HAVE YOU ABANDONED ME? WHY ARE YOU SO FAR FROM HELPING ME?
These are words to make a preacher nervous.
If we’re asking this text, Who is this God and what is God up to? These words suggest that perhaps we must begin by answering that God has forsaken this person, that God, in fact, abandons us. God is sometimes silent to our cries. God is sometimes absent.
In the faith I grew up with, this is heresy. If you feel like God is absent, I was told, it is because you are. You must search your heart for what is blocking your connection to God. You must find your way back to the faithful God. God is unchanging. God is never absent. We change. We stray. If your prayers for help go unanswered, it is simply that you are not paying attention to the answer, or that perhaps they’ve been answered in a way you don’t like and so refuse to acknowledge.
For the first half of my life, nobody I had known, no pastor or Sunday school teacher or youth leader, no mentor or camp counselor or conference speaker, no even regular fellow Christian would have said, Yep. God sometimes goes AWOL. Yes, it’s a legitimate experience to wrestle with the very real absence of God.
And yet… and yet, not only is this in the mouth of King David, in the prayerbook of our scriptures for all generations of believers before and after Christ to read and pray, but this very prayer was in the mouth of Jesus himself as he hung dying on the cross.
And he did not whisper it quietly under his breath, so as not to shake the faith of others. He shouted it from the feeble depths of his suffocating lungs during his crucifixion, to be heard by his executioners and his followers alike, his enemies and his admirers. Those who believed he was who he said he was and those who were glad to see him die for the blasphemous claim all heard him wail, My God? my God? Why have you forsaken me?
So our question, which was compelling enough to begin with, just got a lot bit juicier.
Because if we ask, Who God is and what God is up tohere, not only is God the one doing the abandoning, but God is, apparently, also the one abandoned, screaming out the accusation against God, Why have you forsaken me? which tells us: godforsakenness is an experience that God knows intimately in God’s own human soul, and viscerally in his own dying flesh and bones.
I wish I had known this sooner in my life: There is a whole aspect of our faith –going back to its very beginning, that doesn’t pretend things are fine when they are not. That doesn’t pretend God is near when God is not. That doesn’t pretend to be ok when you are not.
What time had I ever spent with the Psalms of disorientation? When had I ever read all the way through this Psalm, without skimming past the drama of it? I had never let in the deeply embodied, visceral anguish, the dark imagery that resorts to metaphor to communicate such deep despair and soul torment of total abandonment and absolute desolation.
You guys, this is in our bible. This is our scripture. There are prayers in our bible that articulate feeling completely cut off from God, from others, from your very self, with no agency, just helpless dejection, watching your life disappear before your eyes and God not lifting a finger to stop it.
And the fact that this scripture was cried out by Jesus himselfas he hung dying tells me two things.
1- that it’s ok to feel this way. That to suffer in this way and tell God and even whomever will listen, is a valid human experience. And
2- that to have this scripture there, this prayer at the ready, gave Jesus comfort. He was able to reach for these words, to cry out these words, because they were available to him. When he felt like this he knew he could draw from words written generations before and prayed throughout his childhood by his community, When they felt this way and they cried out to God, I can do the same.
What a gift available to us that we do not grab hold of!
What is God up to?
If God’s goal in coming as Jesus was to save us all from our sin and sadness and give us promises of triumph, and guarantees against pain and misery– then for Jesus to cry this out while he is dying is dreadfully undermining to his whole message. What weakness that seems to declare to the whole world that you were wrong all along! That when it came down to the end of it, God wasn’t there for you after all, but abandoned you.
But if Jesus’ message is that absolute connection to God and each other is possible, is, in fact, what we are already given by God, so much so that I can take even my anger at God, even my abandonment by God, even my very accusations and disappointment over God’s apparent lack of care, and I can shout it at God, even in front of other people, and it cannot end things between us, it cannot stop God from being God or me from belonging to God, what a powerful moment of truth this is.
It is as though God is saying, I cannot enter in and be fully human until I have also experienced completely what it is to be cut off from God, to be lost, to be alone and afraid, hopeless and helpless. And then Jesus does, Jesus dies. And God indeed ceases to be God with us, ceases, in fact, to be God. The Father is not the Father without the Son. The Spirit, which is the energy of the Father to the Son, cannot bewithout the Son. The total annihilation of the Trinity comes when death enters in and separates what cannot be separated.
But then the one who breathes life into being from nothing brings life even from the nothingness of death. Life prevails over death, and now there is no division, no alienation, no abandonment, or suffering, or misery that we have ever, or will ever face, that is not known intimately, shared completely by our God. Death does not have the final word. And no matter how dark our darkness, no matter how terrible our suffering, it is not the final story, or the defining story, of our life. “The worst thing is not the last thing,” is how Buechner said it. Another way is, “If you’re not okay, it’s not the end.” (Alice Conner)
So it turns out that the very real experience of godforsakenness is paradoxically the very place we find God. And if we are working hard to prop up our faith and correct our attitude, adjust to our circumstances with a cheerful disposition and stuff down or avoid any anguish we may feel, if we are trying to get through the godforsakenness pretending to be ok when we are not ok, we are missing God right where God is – on the cross, bearing our suffering with and for us.
But when we let go of trying to preserve God’s reputation and our own status as “faithful,” and come instead to a place of utter honesty, there God can be near to us, there God can find us.
In my own life, when I lost home and family, and all the belonging I had known and the structures that made life make sense, when all I thought I could trust in fell apart, something something in me broke open. It was the first time in my whole life I was not in control. The first time I did not filter my feelings through my mind first, through others’ perceptions, through my beliefs and my principles and correctness. I just let go. I threw it all on God, threw it back to God. I yelled obscenities at God and told God that I had lost all respect for God, and that as far as things between God and me, I was done. I broke up with God. God had forsaken me; God had forsaken all of humanity, I decided, by allowing such suffering to beset us all, and God was not to be trusted.
I had no idea this kind of backtalk to God was so legitimate a part of faith that Jesus himself had done likewise.
But here’s what is so marvelous about all of this- about the whole damn thing of it: this Psalm does what all these psalms of disorientation do – it turns the corner back to trust. Inexplicably, and quite suddenly, it shifts from helpless, abject despair and blame, to effusive praise and thanksgiving, empowered trust and sheer delight.
When we ask the question again at the second half of this Psalm, Who is this God and what is God up to? the Psalmist tells us, God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him. The poor will eat and be satisfied, he says, God’s power and love and deliverance and dominion reaches to the very ends of the earth and encompasses all people everywhere, even those not yet alive.
And just like in life, we don’t get to see what makes the switch. We don’t get to witness what resurrection looks like when it is happening. Just like we don’t get to see what goes on when the dead Jesus reanimates; we just see the inexplicably empty tomb and the living breathing Lord walking among them.
It’s not something we can grasp, this life out of death thing. It’s mystery, transcendence, something outside ourselves that we cannot muster up or break down. There are no steps we take to be transformed. Only openness and honesty, and waiting with our hands outstretched, or even clenched tight.
Because it is not we who do it, but the Holy Spirit.
It is God – this same God we’ve accused of abandoning us – who comes in, when all is said and done, bringing redemption and life and hope. In the very, very end, life and love win, no matter what. And this is true even now. If we let ourselves be where Jesus is, in the raw realness of our lives, God willdo this. God will bring life out of the death of us. God will bring hope out of the despair of us.
Who is this God and what is God up to?
Always this. Always here. Alongside us even in our godforsakeness. At work in the midst of death to bring new life.
Come back to the scene and watch again as Jesus shouts these words from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And not only does godforsakenness get taken up into God, but the imagination of every God-fearing person who hears him ignites and recalls the Psalm they had prayed together through a lifetime, and their ancestors before them.
Time slows down and folds in on itself into timelessness as it sinks in, vast and beyond comprehension, the intimate words prayed by King David 1000 years before, I can count all my ribs, my mouth sticks to my jaws, my hands and feet shrivel, they laugh and mock, let your God save you! They stare and gloat over me, they cast lots for my clothing… Jesus Christ lives them now.
As he cries out the first line to this Psalm, his body wasting away under the crude sign, “King of the Jews,” beyond what is unfolding before them, their memories go on to recall the rest of the prayer to its completion, All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that God has done it.
And in the paradox of a godforsaken and supposedly failed savior being put to death in front of them, a new Kingdom is simultaneously being proclaimed that reaches back to redeem an ancient praying poet king centuries before, and reaches forward to touch generations yet unborn, and reaches beyond this people to all nations, and every family, and each person who sleeps in the whole earth, and reaches from the real experiences of a lived life through death and beyond it, to eternity.
There is no death –of self, or dreams, or even our mortal bodies - stronger than the life and love of God. We need not fear. We will fear, but we need not. And when we do, we can yell that out to God too.
Because there is nothing, nothing that you cannot say to God.
And there is no experience so dark, so terrible, so godforsaken, that God does not bear it with us.
Thank you, David.
Thank you prayers of our scriptures.
Thank you, Psalms of Disorientation and all who have prayed them before us, for giving us words when we are too timid or too tongue-tied to go there on our own.
Take us to the feet of God and leave us there, and see what God will do with us.