LENT — Free to Despair

1 O LORD, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you.
2 Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry!
3 For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength,
5 like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.
6 You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep.
7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah
8 You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9 my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call upon you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
13 But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
16 Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together.
18 You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness. (Psalm 88 ESV)

I came across this saying one of the daily offices the other day — Thursday I think. I don’t remember which one, Evening Prayer, maybe. I’ve been using the rubrics and readings for the daily offices from the St. Bede Breviary web site, part of my continued drift toward something resembling orthodox Anglicanism.

In fact, I do wish I had my own small chapel where I could do this with others. Pray the hours, and celebrate the eucharist. Assuming, of course, there are others here in Moses Lake who would do this. And I don’t think there are.


At any rate, this psalm. I like this psalm. I have underlined most of it in yellow in my Bible. It is one of pure, unleavened lament. There is little but sorrow and despair here.

And that says it is okay simply cry out, to lament, to despair. And to do all of those things without tacking on a happy ending or sense of hope.

A few things. In the Hebrew, the first line here is:

A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah [קֹרַח]. To the choirmaster: according to the Mahalath of Leannoth. A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.

The Sons of Korah have a number of psalms attributed to them, and it appears to be related to a verb קָרַח which means “to make bald” though it bears an interesting resemblance to קָרַה which means “to encounter or meet” with an emphasis on misfortune, and also to oppose.

I bring this up because Korah is that guy way back in Numbers 16 who challenges Moses for very democratic reasons — “You have gone too far!” he tells Moses. “For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them! Why then fo you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” — and is swallowed up live, along with his followers, into Sheol, the underworld, the land of the dead.

The Sons of Korah — the bald or, if you like, the unfortunate oppositional ones — know a few things about misfortune.

About being cast out from the presence of God.

There is, among many Christians, a sense that God wants, even demands, that we be happy and upbeat all the time. No despair. No sorrow. No lament. Everything is all resurrection, and no crucifixion. An empty tomb without anyone dead ever laid there in the first place.

Jesus comes into your life and changes it for the better! Always better! Always happy! Always on your way to health and wealth and your best self ever!

Anything else is doubt. Faithless, hollow, doubt.

But this is not true of scripture itself. Yes, we do know the end of the story — the tomb is empty, the dead are risen, there will be a new heaven and a new earth. But to get there … we must first suffer and die.

So it is okay to sit, and lament, and wonder — where is God? Why is God doing this to me?

In fact, if we take the psalms as Martin Luther did, the very prayers of Christ, then we are doing what our Lord did in his very humanity — wonder where God is, and why he is alone, abandoned, and why it seems he bears the wrath so unjustly, and so alone.

It is Christ, wondering, “My God, My God, why you have forsaken me?” A real cry of despair, of uncertainty and unknowing, if the humanity of Jesus means anything at all.

If our humanity means anything.

We are freed to despair. And while many such psalms end with a confession of trust and faith in the saving mercy of God, this one does not. Which means — we can despair like this too. We can faithfully cry out to God “You have abandoned me to destruction, cast my soul away, left me alone and unwanted, like a man alive among the dead.”

Full stop. End of statement. No “… but you are faithful” or “I will trust in the Lord.” just silence. Despair followed by a quiet nothing, an emptiness that seems to stretch to the very beginnings of the universe.

We are free to despair and lament because this is not unbelief. This is not a lack of faith. Or a lack of trust. It is an honest expression in a time of deep sorrow and trouble. I am alone. I am unwanted. I have been wounded and I will never heal or be whole again. I have been abandoned by God. We are free to do this.

Because … to cry out to God in sorrow, or despair, or even in rage, is an act of faith. An act of trust. That God will hear. And remember.

And know.

LENT — Fear and Loathing

15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city. (Mark 11:15-19 ESV)

For some reason, in my main Bible (the ESV I got before going to seminary more than decade ago), in the margin of this portion of Mark’s gospel, I have scrawled “Ezekiel 7,” which comes in the midst of several chapters in which promises horrific judgement upon Israel.

“Behold, the day! Behold, it comes! Your doom has come… (Ezekiel 7:10)

God promises violence — war, death, destruction, starvation, disease, disaster upon disaster. “All hands are feeble, all knees turn to hot water,” God promises.

There is some talk of buyers and sellers — “wrath is upon their multitude,” God says, and silver and gold are unable to deliver them. The land, the city, the temple will be defiled:

21 And I will give it into the hands of foreigners for prey, and to the wicked of the earth for spoil, and they shall profane it. 22 I will turn my face from them, and they shall profane my treasured place. Robbers shall enter and profane it. (Ezekiel 7:21-22 ESV)

This is, I think, why I connected these two. Robbers profaning in the temple is a sign of the judgment of God. Jesus isn’t cleansing the temple — he’s giving us a foreshadow of God’s coming judgment, the judgment that will see this temple pulled down, destroyed, no stone left standing upon another.

Ezekiel shows us more in Chapter 8, when we see idolatrous worship in the temple — priests worshipping the sun, worshiping idols in the dark, claiming “The Lord does not see us, the Lord has forsaken the land.”

And in Chapter 9, Ezekiel tells of a man clothed in linen with a writing case at his waist, and God commands this man to pass through the city, to mark those who “sign and groan over all the abominations” while five other men are commanded to go through the city and and kill, to show neither pity nor mercy, and to start at the temple.

And this is only the beginning.

Jesus isn’t cleansing the temple. He is judging it. He is a foreshadow of God’s coming judgment, the army that will arrive and besiege and destroy the city. And so many of those living in it.

God will redeem a remnant. That beautiful passage about removing the heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh only comes after all this. We who await our redemption must remember — it only comes after a terrible time of judgment, of suffering, of death, and of exile.

All the while, those who benefit from the iniquity and injustice of the world, who have come to believe that God no longer sees, that God has truly abandoned the world, are afraid — afraid that judgment means an end to things. And it does.

But we are still afraid too. Our hearts beat, not quite flesh, but no longer stone. We eat our bread and drink our water in trembling and fear. We fear suffering and death, exile and powerlessness, the end of ways which have grown comfortable and profitable, that we will no longer be important or influential.

We fear. And we are right to be afraid. Terrible things are coming. We cannot stop it. We can only watch, powerless, while God does his horrible work.

LENT — Not For Ourselves

4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it stands in Scripture:
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
7 So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,”
8 and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

What do we use stones for?

Well, not much. Not anymore. Our technology is such we can cast concrete and quarry whole sheets and slabs of rock. We don’t use stones themselves to build much anymore.

But we did. Homes, and roads, and temples, and vast pyramids, built out of rocks, raw and shaped, set into place, one upon another.

A stone is not asked if it wants to be used. Or how. Or where. It is simply used, placed where it fits best or looks best or even just where it is needed.

We are living stones in an edifice we did not design, are not constructing, and will never really use. Not for ourselves, at any rate.

And this is a hard thing. We all want an obvious, clear, meaningful purpose for our lives. Our best lives now, lives that mean what they mean primarily to ourselves. Self-defined, self-actualized, self-realized. “My life has meaning and purpose to me!” We all want that. We want to know who we are and why we are. We are taught it is what freedom means, and it is the highest human calling, our most human purpose, to define, to choose, to create our our meaning and purpose and calling.

But it isn’t. Because we are mere stones. We are fashioned and shaped and used in ways we cannot consent to and might not even approve of were we asked. And we aren’t asked. Sometimes … we have to take on faith that our lives have value and meaning and purpose, because it’s not clear or obvious on the face of it that they do. At least not to ourselves.

We are stones. We are material from which a great temple, a wondrous house of worship is being built. Our lives have value. But not necessarily because we choose that value. Or even know what it is. Our lives have value because we belong to one who chose us, formed us, shaped us, picked us for tasks we haven’t chosen and gave us purpose and meaning we don’t create.

Our lives are not our own. We are free not because we are in charge but because we aren’t. We are free to be who we are called, formed, shaped, and loved. Free to become this great spiritual house, sing in this great choir of witnesses, free to proclaim that we are a people who have received a mercy we could never deserve.