A Lament: I’m Desperate
When I was a kid we always played sword drill at church. Anybody know what sword drill is?
To become a good sword drill competitor, you (obviously) have to know your way around your Bible pretty well—you’re never going to get anywhere in competition, in other words, if you have to look in the index every time a new biblical citation is called.
I don’t want to engage in the sin of pride, especially during this season of confession and repentance, but I think I can say with some measure of objectivity that I was, well, one of the best at sword drill. I can’t claim exceptional status in many things in this life, but I think this may be one of the few.
And you don’t get to be an excellent sword drill competitor just by chance, you know. It takes years of training, careful attention to honing your skills, many hours of Sunday School in which you practice locating scripture passages.
And, training often starts at a very young age. One of the first things I learned about navigating my way through the Bible, probably as early as five years old, was how to find the Psalms. And beginning sword-drill-competitor-in-training soon learns that the Psalms should always be your starting point, as that book of the Bible is the easiest to find.
It’s very simple. Just take out a pew Bible and eyeball where the middle of the text might be. Now, open it up. Chances are, 9 times out of 10, you end up in the Psalms. It’s right there in the middle, easy to find, easy to access, and easy to memorize verses to recite for the Sunday School teacher so you can get a star in your row on the chart hanging on the wall of the Sunday School room.
And for all of these reasons and more, the Psalms have always been, for me, a comfortable, easy place to dip my feet in to understanding our human relationship to God. They are so simple and childlike, “the Lord is my shepherd…” and, don’t forget, you can find the book of Psalms always by using that midpoint trick I just showed you.
But what they don’t tell you in Sunday School while they are busy teaching you how to win at sword drill is that, while it’s true that many of the Psalms are easy to read, easy to understand, and familiar even to the secular ear, there are other Psalms—less familiar to our ears for sure—that use harsh and desperate language to articulate…lament—a deep, dark groaning of the soul, an experience held in common by all humanity but not scripture we generally want to commit to memory or even, say, preach sermons about. So many of the Psalms are so child-accessible and simple that we forget… they are starkly and profoundly grown up, too. Some of them deal with deep and painful issues of human life, the things that we can’t even put into words, things we avoid putting into words at all costs because then they become realities. But the truth of the matter is that the desperation of human life visits us all, and one of the reasons the Psalms of lament are in our holy scripture is because we need the help of a master wordsmith to assign words to the pain we feel.
For this, the Psalmist gives us the lament. These are the grown-up bits of the Psalms, where God’s people are victims of injustice and pain, and where the raw reality of human life can’t stop from sinking deep into our souls and changing the way we look at the world.
And so, avoidance tactics aside, we’re crying an urgent lament again today, in chorus with the writer of the Psalms and in acknowledgement that we find ourselves these days in the season of Lent—a season of the church year that invites us to grieve for all the brokenness and pain in our world, even in our lives.
Today we’re looking at Psalm 22, one of the more familiar Psalms of lament. It’s a long Psalm, one in which the lament form of Psalms that we discussed last week is woven through 31 verses. In fact, this lament moves from deep, deep down, from the lowest point of desperation to the kind of urgent hope and recitation of the faithfulness of God—just to remind our desperate selves that it’s possible…it has happened before. It’s language to encapsulate the deepest groanings of our souls, the kinds of situations you cannot easily express when you run into an acquaintance in the mall, for example, and he asks off-hand, “So how are things going?”
I don’t really know how you can live in the world these days and not be aware of Facebook. If you don’t use it, then maybe at least you have heard of or seen the recent Oscar winning film, The Social Network. As a platform for social interaction, where you hear the latest news from friends and post regular updates to give folks a glimpse into what’s going on in your world, Facebook has revolutionized the way we interact with each other and answer that question: “So how are things going?” As most of you know, when you are a member of Facebook you have the opportunity to provide regular updates on your activities—how you are feeling about things that are going on in your life. For example, you might update your Facebook status from your phone right this moment to read: “currently listening to the best sermon I have ever heard in my entire life…”.
Right at the end of 2010, Facebook offered a program in which you could consolidate into one page many of the updates of the year gone by. That is, all those little snippets together, ups and downs, marking a year of life. I did this to my updates. Some of the phrases made me smile as I remembered. Some, when I read them, broke my heart again, because the words recalled some deeply painful parts of the year gone by.
If this Psalm were a compilation of Facebook status updates, what we would have here is a masterpiece of articulating desperation. In other words, if you didn’t know what desperation sounds like, you may now turn to verse one of Psalm 22 and read: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Can you hear it? The gut-wrenching agony that scrapes along the very bottom of the human experience, utterly desperate, unable to see another way. And the Psalmist doesn’t stop there. As he bounces back and forth from desperate pain to desperate hope, one extreme to another, he pulls out the most powerful “status updates,” if you will…metaphors to describe the agony of his pain.
Listen to them:
“I am a worm—I don’t feel like I am even human at all.” This metaphor paints the big picture of a dark place somewhere in the depths of human life. It calls to mind something base, dirty, despised and avoided. A worm—a maggot is what the writer likely means here—crawls through dirt and sewage, rancid and rotting flesh, and lives submerged in uncleanliness. If we think about a worm or a maggot at all, we recall that its whole existence is at the mercy of anyone who would walk by and crush it. What’s the worst thing you could be—the most insignificant, worthless existence you could have? The Psalmist chooses the metaphor of a worm, and these are words of desperation.
“I feel poured out like water, all my bones are out of joint.” This is a strong and poignant metaphor for the extreme powerlessness that comes from desperation. When you feel the depth of desperation the Psalmist feels here, you can’t even summon the courage or the facility to do the most basic things—like, say, get out of bed in the morning. Ever feel like that? I have. When you feel like this, it is very possible, indeed, to feel like your bones are about as strong as a puddle of water, and nothing works like it’s supposed to. Forget the higher levels on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, about having purpose and feeling happy and engaging in meaningful relationships…when you feel like this metaphor describes, chances are you can’t even crawl out to face the world. My bones are like water. These are words of desperation.
My heart is like wax, it is melted in within my breast. What a metaphor for the emotions of desperation. This is a fancy way to say: I just don’t care anymore. Life just doesn’t seem to be worth much effort these days—what’s the point of even caring, when it feels like all my efforts have been worth a sum total of…nothing? Was there a point to getting on with life, going about my business? Because if there ever was, I can’t remember it now. My heart is melting like wax over a flame; I just don’t care. These are words of desperation.
Why, thank you, Psalmist. Somehow you have managed to put words to our utter desperation. And even through the ancient metaphors, we know…we know all too well…exactly what the writer of Psalm 22 is talking about, don’t we?
It’s very curious to me that our Psalm today is paired with a Gospel lesson from the Gospel of John, chapter 3. In this familiar passage we meet Nicodemus, whom we are told is a Pharisee—a religious man holding a high social position, for sure, and the text further clarifies by telling us Nicodemus is a leader of the Jews—not just your everyday Pharisee.
In this passage it seems like Nicodemus is rather desperate, too. He’s encountered this man Jesus and so many of the things he’d always thought about life and society and God and religion have somehow gotten upended. In fact, Nicodemus must have been thinking desperately about what these new revelations might mean for his life, because he snuck out under the cover of darkness our text tells us, in the middle of the night, to bring his desperate questions to Jesus.
And his questions were pretty deep and desperate. Nicodemus had obviously heard Jesus’ message and seen him performing miracles. He was convinced there was something to this Kingdom of God about which Jesus was preaching and teaching.
But he just couldn’t understand it.
He couldn’t get his mind around this different view of the world that challenged everything he had always known and threatened to rock the world in which he lived.
He and Jesus have quite a theologically deep conversation there in chapter 3. They go into concepts and ideas that you’d have to be a scholar to even voice but that probably didn’t make much sense even to Nicodemus in the throes of desperation.
And while at the end of his conversation with Jesus Nicodemus is certainly still left grappling with the desperation he feels, what Jesus gives him is the timeless reassurance of God’s presence and care in the verse that many of us DID memorize in Sunday School (but that I could still beat you in finding if we were challengers in a sword drill). You know it, you’ve heard it, it’s verse of comfort and hope, even in the middle of desperate times: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
The love and care of our Divine Creator.
The only balm for our desperation.
The writer of Psalm 22 knew it, too. In the wake of his feelings of hopelessness and despair, he remembered the only thing that could heal his spirit, could make him look up from the horror of his life, could give him courage to move forward even when nothing seemed to make any sense at all:
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 he has done it.