St. John’s University, Collegivelle, MN, 56231 2006
Saturday, June 6 By Matt Allen
O God, I need You every day that I exist and every night that I pass through. Never turn Your face from me, O Lord, for my life is a continuous plea for help. My life is one long series of conflicts and defeats, and they only increase as I near its end. My ultimate destiny is a hole in the ground, but even now I am as good as dead. Without strength, forsaken, shunned by those around me, I feel as if I were separated forever from You. I am assailed by afflictions, attacked by obsessions, and all but forgotten by God and human beings. And yet I continue to cry out to You. Even while the assaults of this life and the fear of death surround me and close in on me, I look to You for some ray of hope. Good Lord, where are You? Is there nothing within me worth saving? –Psalm 88 (paraphrased by Leslie Brandt in her book Psalms Now)
Psalm 88 is perhaps the darkest hymn in the Christian faith. No selection in the Psalter takes us deeper into the shadowed rooms of the heart, exposing unvarnished doubts, grief, depression, and anxiety. In clear contrast to other psalmists, the author of Psalm 88 offers no hint of thanksgiving, praise, or hope for the future (even the other psalms of lament reflect some ray of hope that prayers will be answered). So why was it included in the Psalter, the hymnbook of our faith? What insights does it offer for our modern world, where we seem to have all the answers?
Lesson one: The importance of expressing vulnerability. Geologist Xavier Le Pichon founded the field of plate tectonics, the study of how earth’s plates move and interact with each other. In a podcast, Le Pichon connected the fragility that exists in his field of geology with the fragility we find in humanity. He spoke poignantly about the earth’s remarkable ability to accommodate fragility and weakness: “Fragility is the essence of men and women, and it is at the heart of humanity … A capacity to accommodate fragility is a (fundamental element) of vital, evolving systems, whether geological or human … Earthquakes happen when weaknesses cannot be expressed.”
And I believe what’s true for geology and communities is applicable for human spirituality as well. We paralyze ourselves spiritually when we do not expose our vulnerabilities to the light of day. A necessary component of a mature spiritual journey is the unfiltered expression of our fears and doubts. Spiritual earthquakes happen when our vulnerabilities remain subterranean, festering unseen until they eventually explode.
More than anyone who ever lived, Jesus understood the importance of accommodating the vulnerable. A defining pattern of his ministry was bringing those with questions closer to him instead of sending them away. Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus still applies to us today: I know you have questions; come down from that tree.
Lesson two: The Darkness that is Light. One of my spiritual heroes was my first pastor, Dr. William E. Hull. His final sermon, preached after he was diagnosed with ALS, was based on Psalm 88 and entitled “The Darkness that is Light.” Using his own illness as a backdrop, the main thrust of the sermon was that the light of Christ shines through most vividly when it’s juxtaposed against darkness. Indeed, it’s only when we trace despair to its lair that we fully appreciate the contrast that is offered in the light of Christ. Society views darkness as something we must escape. But Psalm 88 tells us not to runaway from darkness; rather, we should embrace it as a necessary component of our enlightenment.
Lesson three: Grief doesn’t have to be balanced by thanksgiving. A common formula for our prayers is to balance our petitions with Thanksgiving. But Psalm 88 offers no such balancing, just questions. If that reality makes us squeamish, we can take heart knowing John the Baptist, Elijah, Moses, and even Jesus found themselves left with only questions. Indeed, Jesus asked the most haunting question of all time: My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? (Matt 27:46). Psalm 88 teaches us that the punctuation of our prayers need not be exclamation points–a solitary question mark hanging in the sky is enough.
At bottom, Psalm 88 leaves us with this eternal truth: Our questions and doubts are not signs of weakness–they’re signs of growth. And in the sacred space between our questions and opening the Book of Life, God illumines the shadowed rooms of the heart with a beam of our eternal home.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
1) Psalm 88 makes clear our religious forebearers gave breathing room to those who had religious questions and doubts. Will we be just as accommodating to our own spiritual doubts and the doubts of our fellow pilgrims?
2) Once this week say a prayer of desperation, where you only lift up the negative corners of your heart. Perhaps make this discipline of intentional lamenting part of your regular spiritual routine.
3) God often speaks in moments of silence. Let us be open to the transforming work taking place in that space of silence. A prayer by Henri Nouwen:
Speak gently in my silence. When the loud outer noises of my surroundings and the loud inner noises of my fears keep pulling me away from you, help me to trust that you are still there Even when I am unable to hear you. Give me ears to listen to your small, soft voice saying: “Come to me, you who are overburdened, and I will give you rest… For I am a gentle and humble of heart.” Let that loving voice be my guide.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: “I’d Write for You a Rainbow” (a poem by Anne Weems from her book Reaching for Rainbows)
If I could, I’d paint for you a rainbow And splash it with all the colors of God And hang it in the window of your being So that each new God’s morning Your eyes would open first to Hope and Promise. If I could, I’d wipe away your tears And hold you close forever in shalom But God never promised I could write a rainbow, Never promised I could suffer for you, Only promised I could love you. That I do.