Sunday, March 28, 2010

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Twenty-some years ago, I walked into my therapist's office and read the following words, softly, slowly, my voice cracking with emotion:

"Lord my God, I call for help by day;
I cry at night before you.
Let my prayer come into your presence.
O turn your ear to my cry.

For my soul is filled with evils;
my life is on the brink of the grave.
I am reckoned as one in the tomb:
I have reached the end of my strength,

like one alone among the dead;
like the slain lying in their graves;
like those you remember no more,
cut off, as they are, from your hand.

You have laid me in the depths of the tomb,
in places that are dark, in the depths.
Your anger weighs down upon me:
I am drowned beneath your waves.

You have taken away my friends
and made me hateful in their sight.
Imprisoned, I cannot escape;
my eyes are sunken with grief.

I call to you, Lord, all the day long;
to you I stretch out my hands.
Will you work your wonders for the dead?
Will the shades stand and praise you?

Will your love be told in the grave
or your faithfulness among the dead?
Will your wonders be known in the dark
or your justice in the land of oblivion?

As for me, Lord, I call to you for help:
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Lord, why do you reject me?
Why do you hide your face?

Wretched, close to death from my youth,
I have borne your trials; I am numb.
Your fury has swept down upon me;
your terrors have utterly destroyed me.

They surround me all the day like a flood,
they assail me all together.
Friend and neighbor you have taken away:
my one companion is darkness." 

Although what I was reading was Psalm 88, I read these words as though they were my own. I don't recall what my therapist said when I was finished, but I recall sensing that he understood. He did not have to tell me that he suffered too, in order for me to know that I was not alone in my experience of pain. One of the most distressing and, unfortunately, common experiences in our lives is that of feeling forsaken or abandoned. Some of us have experienced that quite literally: parents who have hurt us or left us; people who promised to help us and then were nowhere to be seen when we needed them; spouses who vowed to love us forever only to abuse us or choose to love another instead. However, for those of us who have believed (or tried to believe), perhaps there is no sense of abandonment greater than that we feel when God is silent. We have tried to believe that God is all-good and all-powerful, and yet it seems that God did nothing when we called out for help. According to our belief, God could have intervened to stop the bad things from happening - but he didn't and we don't understand why.

Some who read this may be surprised to know that I have seen a therapist or that I have ever felt an anguish as deep as that expressed in the words of this psalm. However, those who know me well, I'm sure, are not surprised at all...This anguish, of course, is not unique to you or to me. In fact, in my church, in the office of readings, we are invited to read these words of Psalm 88 every Friday night. Whether we are in good times in our lives or bad, we must never allow ourselves to forget the cry of anguish - for that cry may be my cry or yours or my brother's or my mother's... And it was also the cry of Jesus, whose Father allowed him to be betrayed by friends and violently killed by those who opposed him. We are told that the Jesus accepted this fate, though afraid and wishing he didn't have to.

The story does not end here. I am not just talking about the fact that the word "Easter" appears on our calendars in a week. It is about the Gift. The Gift is here and now and every day...
(Please check back. I will be writing more about this soon...)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ask and you will receive...

"And I tell you ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." (Luke 11:9)

I remember, as a young child, waking in the night during a storm and being frightened by loud crashes of thunder. I must have been taught that I should pray under such circumstances (though I don't actually remember what I was told) because I would start out with "Hail Mary, full of grace..." For a few minutes, it would seem that my prayer must have hit the mark because the thunder would pass and I would start to doze off once more. However, just moments later, another sudden crash would come. "Hail Mary...", I would start up again, figuring that more prayer was needed to appease my noisy God.

While I can smile at that memory now, it brings to mind a deeper issue that gnaws at any of us who have ever thought about or made an attempt at prayer. Such questions arise in our minds: does prayer really work? Why bother to pray if what I ask for never comes about? When life is going fairly well, we may find that we can explain away such uncomfortable concerns with the notion that maybe it's not God's time yet, or maybe God has a better plan in mind. However, at more critical junctures in our lives, such as when we suffer a deep loss or we are in severe pain or we feel totally alone, these explanations do not sit as comfortably. And sometimes, for some of us, they can be "deal breakers", signs that it is time to give up on the God business. Maybe prayer is just superstition, as it seems my 6 year old prayer was when I thought it would change the laws of nature.

And who am I to say that prayer is not just superstition? If I cry out to God for help and help comes, I feel my belief in prayer is affirmed. If I cry out to God for help and help doesn't come, I make excuses for God (he's testing my faith or he has a lesson for me) or I take the blame (I asked for the wrong thing or I didn't have enough faith). Indeed, prayer of this type does sound rather superstitious. God can do no wrong. Ask and I might receive; if I don't, God must have had a good reason.

But perhaps there is a prayer that is something very different from this. It is, of course, natural that we should ask God for things we want or need since Jesus, quoted above, encourages us to ask. And it was natural that my 6 year old self asked God to make the scary noise stop. But what I probably needed more than an end to the thunder was for Someone to be present with me there in the dark, reassuring me that I was loved no matter what, that ultimately I was safe no matter how terrible the storm raging outside my window. I was too young to know it then, but I know now that life cannot be without storms. I can say from my perspective now that all of the storms will pass; they do not last forever. However, when in their midst, I don't know how long they will last or how bad they will get. And so there is a prayer that goes beyond the superstition of "God, I need this..." to "God, I need you."

This, of course, is another one of the scary prayers I wrote about before. It is a prayer of longing for relationship, longing for God as God is, longing for a Love that goes beyond all of the transient loves that appear and disappear in our lives. It is a prayer that cannot be superstitious because it does not put God to the test with events that may be chance occurrences. It is a living, breathing relationship where I learn to open my heart and God gives himself to me; I learn to leave all else behind and give myself to God - and he welcomes me into his heart. And the dance continues, regardless of what storms rage around us. We are not without suffering, but God is there suffering with us, holding us in love as we pass through the pain.

Yet any of you reading this might be thinking, "I don't have any idea how to do that. Maybe she knows how to pray like that and experience God like that, but I certainly don't." And so I must confess to you that I have no idea how to do it either. Much of the time, my prayers are probably just as weak and superstitious (or nonexistent) as yours. When I do receive the gift of this relationship prayer, it is not because I did something right. It is not about me. It is about the Gift. I can only hope that I will learn how to be open to the Gift - and I don't even know what it is I need to learn.

And so is born yet another scary prayer: God, teach me what I need to learn...

"And I tell you ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." (Luke 11:9)