Reading: Psalm 88
We all like a happy ending.
Where the heroine and hero get together, against all the odds.
Where the rotter discovers the error of his ways and decides to start again.
Where the detective discovers whodunnit.
This evening Julie and I will be watching The Durrells. One of the nice things about that is that, although I’m sure there will be some ongoing plot development throughout the series, that by the end of the episode disaster will have been averted and the main struggle of the evening happily resolved.
All in the space of 60 minutes…
45, if you skip the ads.
Sometimes we might wish life were more like that. But we know it isn’t.
And some of the best stories recognise that. Julie and I also enjoyed Line of Duty, me partly because it is filmed in Belfast and I keep going ‘oh, I know where that is.’ But also because even though on one level the case seems to be solved, something bigger is going on in the background. And 4 series in that hasn’t all been resolved. There are loose ends still not tied up.
Some great Bible stories are also like that. Joseph and the family might be reunited at the end of Genesis, so we could be forgiven for thinking they have reached the happy ending. But they are just part of a bigger story about Abraham’s family and, as Genesis draws to a close, there is still little sign of them having any land, being a nation or blessing the world. All the things introduced as far back as Genesis 12, which the whole story is supposed to be about. None of them seem any further forward.
Some of you might remember a few years ago around this time we spent Lent in the story of Jonah. At the very least you might remember the Veggietales cartoon. But the story didn’t end with Jonah learning the error of his ways, preaching to Nineveh and revival breaking out. It ends with Jonah in a grump, wishing he could die and God challenging him about the prophet’s attitude.
And we’re not told how Jonah reacted.
Likewise the prodigal son story doesn’t end with the father hugging the long-lost son, putting the ring on his finger, new clothes, new shoes and a party. It ends outside the party with the father begging the elder brother to come in. (If you read the whole of chapter 15 and see the context in which Jesus tells the story, that bit, the bit outside the party is actually the main point).
We’re not told whether the brother responds.
The same is true in the story of Zacchaeus, the little tax collector, who climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Jesus calls him out of the tree, goes and has dinner with him, the townspeople grumble but Jesus tells them not to. Zacchaeus is also a son of Abraham, says Jesus.
Did the townspeople agree with Jesus?
Did they say, hmm, suppose Jesus has got a point?
We don’t know.
They might have run Zacchaeus out of town for all we know.
We assume Zacchaeus kept his promise. But we’re never actually told.
And if Zacchaeus stopped being a tax collector, was the guy who took his job any better? Maybe he or she was just as big a crook. Maybe even worse.
This morning we read a psalm together. A lot of people like Psalms. There’s something there for pretty much every mood. But, you know, I’d be very surprised if there was anyone would put Psalm 88 in a list of their favourites. When you’ve read it, you’re probably not that surprised that it is one of the Psalms bypassed in the back section of our hymn books. The lectionary basically overlooks it.
I would suggest one reason for that is that is hard to find much hope in it.
There is no happy ending.
Those who write about Psalms categorise them in lots of different ways. But one quite helpful way is from a guy called Walter Bruggemann. He says there are three kinds of Psalms.
There are Psalms of orientation. These are the ones where it all makes sense. The ones which suggest the world works the way we’d like it. The good guys win the bad guys get what they deserve. Like Psalm 1. The Godly prosper. The wicked get blown away by the chaff.
But there are also Psalms of disorientation. These are the ones where the world stops making sense. Where things start to fall apart. Where the psalmist feels lost. A few weeks ago we looked at Psalm 13. How long, O LORD, will you forget me? How long will you look the other way? There is no sense that his suffering is because of anything he has done. He just feels God has forgotten him. It doesn’t make sense.
Then there are psalms of reorientation. Where they had a bad experience, perhaps took a wrong turn, but learned from it and it enhanced their understanding. An example of this is Psalm 73.
When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.
Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
It all turns on that word YET.
… reorientation assumes at some point there has been disorientation.
You can’t be found unless you’ve got lost.
Our understanding does not develop unless at some point things stopped making sense.
If everything just carried on the way you expected you would never have a reason to question anything.
This is how we grow.
We might wish we could jump from orientation to reorientation without disorientation but life doesn’t work like that.
Ever found yourself saying ‘if I knew then what I know now, I’d never have done that?’ Well how come you know now what you didn’t know then? Often it’s precisely because you did do that.
There are no shortage of Psalms which deal with the darker side of life. Psalm 51 has David confronting his sin, seeking forgiveness and a fresh start. But it ends with the assurance that God will welcome him.
Psalm 23, which we sang from earlier sounds very peaceful, but chances are it is written in the dark valley. But it ends with goodness and love following us wherever we go, and us dwelling close to God forever.
Even Psalm 22 which starts in very dark fashion My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? echoing the words Jesus spoke from the cross, is a Psalm that ends in victory. In God turning things around, the poor eating and being satisfied, and God being exalted as Lord among the nations.
As the hymn book for the life of faith of Israel and the church, the psalms are not always the most happy, happy.
Psalm 88 is different. There is no hint of reorientation here. It is unashamedly a Psalm of disorientation. We don’t get any sense of a movement from turmoil and trouble to it starting to get better.
There are only two positive things in the entire Psalm. One is right at the beginning, when he speaks of God as the One who saves him. He is waiting to be saved, but God is the One who can do it.
The other positive that despite everything he appears to be experiencing he is still writing it…
He is still praying.
Whatever we do and however we approach this Psalm, don’t underestimate the importance of that last point. Hold that thought. We’ll come back to it.
But for now that’s not what he’s feeling. He is overwhelmed with troubles, he describes himself as being in the lowest pit and darkest depths. It seems to have been ongoing for a long time. Later in the Psalm he speaks about how he has suffered since he was young and he has had enough of it. He feels cut off from his closest friends. In fact he is accusing God of doing this to him. That God has rejected him, is punishing him. You don’t get much of that in Songs of Fellowship or Baptist Praise and Worship.
And if God doesn’t act soon, he says, it’ll be too late. He continues…
Do you perform miracles for the dead? Do they rise up and praise you?
Is your constant love spoken of in the grave or your faithfulness in the place of destruction?
Are your miracles seen in that place of darkness or your goodness in the land of the forgotten?
From a Christian, post-Easter point of view, with a hope in Resurrection and a belief in life after death, we might answer this differently or miss his point. For the vast majority of the Old Testament they didn’t think that way. It’s only really in the very late stages of the Old Testament, possibly even in the period between the Old and New Testament that they really start to have any developed ideas about things like life after death, heaven, hell, resurrection and so on. In short, when we read this in the Psalm, he is expecting the answer to be ‘no!’
On and on he goes. And this is where our word for the next couple of weeks come in….
Why do you reject me, Lord?
Why do you turn away from me?
You have made even my closest friends abandon me,
and darkness is my only companion.
At this stage you might be thinking ‘yes… and…’
But that’s where the Psalm ends.
And this is in their Temple Praise and Worship.
When they came to putting together the worship books of Israel, who knows how many songs they could have chosen from? And someone said this has got to be in there.
What do you do with a song like that?
There are three brief things I want to say about it. Sadly they don’t have three nice headings.
The first is this. It’s there because it’s an experience that is part of the life of faith.
Over the last number of months we have been looking at the different phases or seasons we encounter or experience when we try to live in relationship with the living God we encounter in Jesus Christ. In that context this is a Psalm written by someone in the Why? season.
The word itself is used twice in quick succession towards the end of the Psalm.
Why do you reject me, Lord?
Why do you turn away from me?
This Psalm is very real. In dark times we can find ourselves asking these kinds of questions. When we feel we are sinking lower and lower, when we feel overwhelmed by our circumstances. We can very much feel isolated from others.
Sometimes that is a very real thing. You may encounter people in life who avoid you when you are in a dark period. I have a friend whose first child died within a few days of being born. He remembers walking down the street and people he knew crossing the street to avoid having to speak to him.
He says that it almost felt like they think it’s contagious. Get too close and the same thing might happen to you. More normally it’s the fear of not knowing what to say, or of saying the wrong thing. But the avoidance feels much worse than anything you would be likely to say.
Or it might work the other way. I recognise my own tendency to withdraw, when I am struggling, to go into myself. We might be frightened of what others think if we spoke how we feel. Or we might assume they wouldn’t be really interested. No-one wants to put up with that, we might think. Either way, there is this sense that we feel cut off from others.
For those in that kind of situation, this Psalm serves two purposes. Firstly it says ‘you do belong.’ These feelings are a legitimate part of the life of faith.
If all we had were the Psalms with the happy endings, if all we had were Psalms, say of orientation, you might soon start questioning whether this faith had anything to say to you. Your world doesn’t work like that. Even with psalms of reorientation, you could still find yourself thinking ‘do I belong here?’ I’ve hung on all I can, and still it’s not getting better.
When you include a Psalm like this where it is not resolved, where it ends as it begins, and you include it within the hymn book, at the heart of the life of faith, it’s a reminder that you do belong.
Yes, for those who are not there it might feel a bit depressing. Can we not just get to the praise the Lord bit? Psalm 88 says, yes, we’ll get there. But just for this moment can we let these people know they belong too?
Disorientation is an authentic faith feeling.
The other purpose it serves is to speak two very powerful words.
I know those words have been used a lot in the media recently, within a particular context. But they can be very powerful and liberating words to hear.
A while ago I met an old friend who has been going through a dark period in her life. I didn’t know that when we met up, nothing had been said, but although we had only communicated by e-mail I sensed that there was something she wanted to talk about.
Just before we met I had spent an hour with my therapist. About every 4-6 weeks I still visit the therapist who helped me when I suffered from anxiety a couple of years ago. I treat it like going to the dentist for a check-up. She tells me it’s not the most flattering comparison she’s ever had, but it works for me. But it checks things are ok, or if there is something that needs me to work on before it becomes a more significant problem.
Anyway, I met up with my friend ands he asked what I’d been up to that morning. In part my response was driven by the sense that there was something she wanted to tell me. Also I’m not embarrassed to talk about therapy. So I said ‘oh, I’ve just been to my therapist.’
You could almost feel the relief as I said it. It was my way of saying ‘me too’ which made it so much easier for her to open up.
That’s what this Psalm does. It’s for those in the why season, feeling they have been down for so long, feeling cut off from everyone and everything, to hear the words ‘me too.’
It might not be your exact experience, but someone else has felt this way.
It’s an authentic faith experience.
That leads on to the second thing I want to say about this. When we feel this way we have permission to express it. God is not in the least embarrassed, hurt or annoyed at us expressing it.
Some of us may have been around the faith for a long time. Perhaps all the way since childhood. We might have grown up with it. It might be at home. It might have been at school. But you know it’s possible that we’re still speaking to God in pretty much the same way we did as a child.
Some of us do struggle with expressing our feelings with anyone, and perhaps particularly with anyone in authority. And that can be passed on to how we relate to God. It’s all very polite and deferential.
Also we can be inclined to distrust our feelings. My religious background emphasised truth, scripture and reason. Feelings on the other hand could be deceptive. They were fickle and subject to change.
But feelings are very much part of who we are. God made us with feelings. Merely cutting them off is denying a fundamental part of our humanity. So much damage is caused by feelings which are not expressed. How we express them is important. I’m not giving people a licence to go around hurting one another.
But God can handle our honesty and our feelings.
As God sees it, at least we’re still talking.
When we stop talking then we’ve got a bigger problem.
However acknowledging feelings doesn’t necessarily make them right. Our feelings are not necessarily the ultimate explanation of how things really are.
The truth ‘as we see it’ is not necessarily the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
For a start what we notice is partial. I mentioned my trip to the therapist earlier. I have to admit, as I went in I was glad for the time I had. In general I knew I was ok, but between catching up after a few days off and things which had previously been postponed due to the Beast of the East, I just felt there was a lot on. Speaking it would give me the chance to get some kind of order. But the conversation took a very different turn. On Tuesday I had got a good first report from my Spiritual direction course. I was quite chuffed. Then I started talking about something else that had gone well, then there was something else… and I discovered there were quite a few things to be thankful for, but in my rushing I wasn’t appreciating. You know, like I’ve kept encouraging you to do for the last couple of years?
But there is another level to this. The psalmist speaks of being rejected by God, being punished by God, that God has been taking his friends away.
Is this accurate?
Is he right?
A number of weeks back I spoke about my faith upbringing and how I was taught to learn verses off by heart. One I was taught early on was in Proverbs. It says
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your path.
At first sight it is about seeking God’s guidance for life. But there is another level to this. There is a difference between trusting God and trusting our understanding of God. With the why? question we are holding two things together. We’re saying God I believe you are there and you are good, and acknowledging our pain. In why we are saying I can’t make sense of those two things.
With the Why? question we have two options. We can ditch God. In which case we’re still left with the pain.
Or we can say I don’t understand, I maybe won’t understand for some time, but I’ll choose to trust God rather than my understanding. We’ll see Jesus do that next week.
I would say that the psalmist is not telling the truth about God and life. He is expressing the truth of how he feels about God and life. And God welcomes our honesty. We can tell God the truth about what we feel. In time we may come to see that how we felt was not 100% accurate, but this is part of the journey from disorientation to reorientation. And it is so much healthier not to live in repression and denial.
In the season of why and of disorientation there is no need to wonder whether you belong. The scriptures we’ve received remind us they are an authentic part of the life of faith.
There are others who have felt that way, recorded it and stand with us to say me too. So we have permission to express how we feel. Sometimes we’ll be wrong. Sometimes we’ll be unfair. But its how we feel. A healthy relationship with God need not be afraid to tell God how we truly feel. God is big enough to hold it.