My sister received news of the accident that claimed suddenly and shockingly the life of her youngest child, my nephew Doug, on the same day that she received news of her cancer diagnosis. Psalm 31 was written for her I suppose. I and my family were living in Bangladesh at the time so I could not be present to see her ‘eyes waste away from grief’ nor the way in which sorrow and worry withered her strength. But we received regular letters from her; not ordinary letters, but scripts that ran over twenty pages in length in which she poured out her grief, piled word upon word in wave after wave of sadness, as she struggled to find words to contain the anguish of her heart, named her complaint before God. But not once did she fail to conclude her letters with affirmations of God’s goodness, God’s wisdom, God’s care and her willingness to trust God to find her in the darkness. She showed us a way in the wilderness of loss but I was not quick to follow.
Like my sister, the author of Psalm 31 is in a profound emotional mess. Not only does he weep until his eyes melt, but the loss of whatever he has lost – his innocence, his honor, his integrity, his confidence, his position – shakes his entire being; his strength fails and his bones waste away. He is scorned. He is isolated. He is a dead man walking. Yet, like my sister, he trusts God and says, “my times are in your hands” and asks, believingly, that God’s face may ‘shine upon your servant, save me in your steadfast love.’
I approach texts like Psalm 31 with great fear and trepidation. I am drawn to them like a moth to flame, which is to say, warily, for I know these Psalms of lament can be devastating if you take them seriously. And I confess that they are difficult for me to pray for I know that my suffering is mostly not innocent. Whatever shame I bear, I’ve brought on myself. Whatever loss of integrity I regret, it is my own doing. Whatever dishonor, I’m likely the culprit. I am no innocent sufferer; of that I am certain.
It was only a few months after my nephew’s death and my sister’s diagnosis that I came face to face with yet another gut-wrenching episode of innocent suffering. On April 29, 1991, a cyclone blasted the southeastern coast of Bangladesh inflicting unimaginable misery on a nation and a people that has suffered too much already. More than 150,000 people perished in the maelstrom, many of them children, infants and elderly folks, too weak to flee the storm’s wrath. Days later I stood on a small rise near the coast and surveyed the wreckage and had my heart pierced. Where was God? I wasn’t sure. What was God doing? I wasn’t sure of that either. My bones wasted away.
Ivan Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s troubled creature, was until that moment to me only a literary character whose inability to accept innocent suffering led him to conclude that he would “hand back his entrance ticket.” But on that day Ivan came to reside in my soul. He was not alone, for here also resides Job, the quintessentially stricken, afflicted character who not only suffers great loss and personal sickness, but the biting scorn of his friends who curse him with bad theology and even worse pastoral (non)care. But even more than that, we know what Job does not know, namely that his suffering is a consequence of a cosmic wager between God and Satan. I’ve wrestled with the book of Job for as long as I’ve taken God and suffering seriously but I’ve never preached from a single text in the book of Job and I don’t plan to. I cannot come to terms with the story’s premise and that makes me keep a respectful and silent distance.
That’s not a bad thing in Lent, is it? As Gabriel Marcel once opined, “Hope arises only when the temptation to despair truly exists.”
Besides Psalm 31 and Job 13, I’ve been reading poetry and offer these as additional commentary. The first is from Gerard Manley Hopkins:
All is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indignation!
Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star,
Death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of us at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time beats level.
Enough! The Resurrection,
A heart’s clarion! Away grief’s gasping,
Joyless day’s dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam.
Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm;
World’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is,
Since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd,
Patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
And this from Christina Georgina Rosetti
I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a tone
Is number too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimmed with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.
My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindles to a husk;
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren disk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall – the sap of spring;
O Jesus, rise in me