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.

Somewhere…

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.

LENT — Just Passing Through

1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 For by it the people of old received their commendation. 3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. …
13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:1-3, 13-19 ESV)

Abraham is that man who never received the things promised.

He heard, he listened, he trusted, and he believed. In things he would never live to see.

This is what faith is.

I don’t have a home. I am a sojourner through this world, at home nowhere, belonging to no one, no kin have I who will claim me, a stranger and an exile everywhere I go. Like Abraham, I wander, a promise in hand not for myself but for my descendants.

I want a home, and I shall never have one. My home is wherever I put up my tent, water and feed my stock, sleep and wake with Jennifer. I desire a better country, a tribe that will claim me, but I shall never have that and shall never live there. I have a promise of belonging but I shall never belong.

I believe. I trust God. I thought I might live to see the promise of God, to hold it in my hand, to live in it and breathe it and be it. But instead, it is far off, a shimmer on the horizon, more mirage than substance. It is real, but only because God has made that promise, and not because I actually have hold of it.

We who are church are too at home in the world. Too comfortable with place, too attached to a people, too convinced that the way we have come to live is the promise God has made to us and to all people for all time. There is something to be learned from those who wander, that we too grasp the promise of God, perhaps more fully, because we cannot easily mistake the way we live for the promise of God.

As church, we must remember the only promise we have that means anything is that we shall be raised from the dead. Yes, we shall be a blessing and have a homeland and descendants more numerous than the stars in the heavens, but every time we actually try to secure those promises for ourselves, we fail — we act rashly and unjustly, we confuse means and ends, and we think impermanent things are really the promises God made to us all along.

We are exiles, wanderers, just passing through. That is who we really are.

LENT — Laughter

1 The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. 2 And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” 7 And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” (Genesis 21:1-7 ESV)

Laughter. Sarah says she and her husband will become objects of … well, what exactly? Ridicule? That such old people have a baby of their own, one they made in what appears to be the conventional way? (Though they had some help; this family appears to need lots of divine help to conceive children.) Amazement? Pity?

Sarah isn’t clear why people people will laugh over her. She’s just clear they will.

She names their son Isaac, Yitzhaq יִצְחָֽק, which means “he laughs.” Sarah laughed at this promise several chapters ago, when the three men who appear to be The Lord visit. She denied laughing at what is clearly the promise of God, but God — before setting out to Sodom to deal with its brutal and murderous hospitality — hears and upbraids her. “You did laugh.”

And in the passage that immediately follows. Hagar — who Sarah has no love for — laughs. The occasion of that laughter is the weaning of Isaac, and the great feast held on that day. Again, we aren’t told why Hagar laughed, only that she did. And this is the cause for Sarah to well and truly expel Hagar and her 14-year-old son into the wilderness.

Laughter.

We laugh for many reasons. Joy. Amusement. Amazement. Pity. Derision. We laugh with and at people. Sarah says everyone who knows will “laugh over her” (כָּל־הַשֹּׁמֵ֖עַ יִֽצְחַק־לִֽי). Not with her, but over her1. She sees herself as an object of pity and derision, of amazement and amusement, of the “what were they thinking?” kind of judgement.

This is what it means sometimes to receive and bear the promise of God. Derision, perplexed amusement, a condescending pity. To be laughed at, and not with. Whatever Hagar meant with her laughter, Sarah took it the worst way possible. Because she herself took it the worst way possible.

Sometimes we are bad bearers of the promise. Reluctant, doubting, past our ability to bear the Good News of God with any goodwill, magnanimity, or joy.

But we bear the promise anyway. Because that promise is not ours, it’s God’s. And while we may be recipients, we also convey that promise to others. Abraham will never realize all the promises made to him — descendants more numerous than grains of sand, a home for those very descendants, being a blessing to the nations (peoples) of the world. He received them, but they weren’t for him.

We receive them. But they aren’t for us. That’s the strange reality of this promise for God. We receive them, trust them, believe them, and carry them on for others. Because they aren’t for us, even as they are.

We are all the bearers of a promise from God that is much bigger than we are.


  1. Though to be fair, the JPS Tanakh translates this passage as “with me,” as does the Christian Standard Bible. And that has a very different implication than the ESV’s “laugh over me.” Still, Sarah’s laugh is dismissive and even a little derisive, and that suggests she thinks others will laugh that way too. ↩︎

LENT — Even in Affliction

6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.
7 The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” 9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” (Genesis 16:6-10 ESV)

The great question of our age is about suffering. Why does a God, who is all-good and all-powerful, allow suffering?

We try to answer that, to square the circle, to make sense of all the things we see in the world that go against what we believe in our hearts and should to be true. Many give up in despair because there is no reasonable answer.

No answer past, “who are you, mere mortal, to question the ways of God?”

God promises justice, mercy, deliverance. And we live in a merciless, unjust, unredeemed world. It makes sense to ask, “How long, O’ Lord?” or even “Where is God?”

Abram and Sarai have been made a promise — descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky or the grains on sand in the desert. God has made that promise, and then has seemingly gone silent. A promise, and then no fulfillment.

Abram and Sarai take matters into their own hands. “If God is not going to do this, we will have to do this ourselves,” they say. Sarai gives her Egyptian slave-girl Hagar to Abram. “Go make a baby with her,” Sarai says, “and that will fulfill this promise God has made to us.”

Abram does. Hagar conceives, and looked with contempt upon her mistress — “I have done something you cannot!” Sarai regrets having done this, is cruel to Hagar, and compels her to flee.

This is a very human drama. Hopes and aspirations meet human effort, consequences no one anticipated result, and we act — whether out of anger or fear or regret, we act.

It is a very human thought, especially in modernity, especially in the wake of our murderous 20th century, in the wake of the Shoah, in the wake of all the death and suffering we are capable of imposing upon ourselves. “If God will not save us, we must save ourselves.”

But note what happens here. God does not prevent or stop Sarai from abusing Hagar. In fact, God orders her back to her abusive mistress. Indeed, when Sarah later decides to expel Hagar and her son, Ishmael, from the little tribe that Abraham, God goes along with this, and sends her into the wilderness.

There’s a lot of human cruelty here which seemingly does not concern God or to which God actively consents.

But condoning the expulsion, demanding a return to abuse, this is not all God does here. Hagar is blessed too, and given her own promise, that her son shall be blessed, and her own offspring shall be too numerous to count. The name Ishmael (יִשְׁמָעֵ֔אל) itself means “God hears.” And God has heard Hagar’s cries, and her son’s cries later too, and will provide water for them both.

God is present. God promises, and God saves. But not in any reasonable way. And not in any “moral” way or “good” way that we might understand. Like Hagar, we are not redeemed from history, we are redeemed in our history. The world is not remade anew. What came before — the very human acts that set into motion suffering, dislocation, and even death — are not undone. Everything that came before matters.

Hagar is made whole with a promise. Not that she will return to Abram and take the place of honor as the one who bears the promise of God to Abram (and to us), but that God will care for her and her son in the wilderness, and that he too will become a people more numerous than grains of sand. She is promised too, and so is Ishmael.

A lot more suffering is coming in this story of the promises to Abraham — war and conquest and exile. Much of that is seen as a deliberate consequence of the failure of Abraham’s descendants through Isaac to live up to their end of the covenant they will receive from God, but all that becomes the foundation for Israel’s great question — what does it mean that God has promised us so much and we are living like this, defeated and scattered and so far from home?

It is also a reminder that God is in the seemingly small things that tend not to make up the narrative of history — unending pots of oil and flour, thousands fed with a few fish and loaves, lepers made clean by a touch or a word, water turned to wine, the blind made to see, and a dead man who rose from the dead. These are what truly matter.

LENT — Outer Darkness

1 I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me.
2 In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
3 When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah
4 You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I consider the days of old, the years long ago.
6 I said, “Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart.” Then my spirit made a diligent search:
7 “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?
8 Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah (Psalm 77:1-9 ESV)

Where is God?

In this forsaken place, this desolate place, this place of despair and darkness, of fear and isolation, it seems like God is not here.

God is not here.

But God is also too much — too much to remember, too much to consider, too much to contemplate. The mere though of God overwhelms.

But God … is not here.

And suddenly I wonder — will God ever be here? Is God done with me? Has God walked away from me? I cry out, and I hope to be heard. I seek comfort and there is none.

I have been abandoned. Cast out. It is cold here, I am alone here, in outer darkness, where I wail and am not heard, where I meditate and collapse. Where I exchange words for mere incoherent lament.

God … is not here.

Have I earned this? Probably. I have earned all that is coming. And this … this being forgotten, left unheard and unconsidered, is no doubt my doing as well.

But I have earned nothing from God. I deserve nothing from God. Not a hearing, not consideration, not redemption. I certainly do not merit grace. Because then … it would not be grace.

I will remember the past deeds of the Lord, who spoke to me in fire and terror, who made himself known to me in a gentle snowfall, who has made ways in the wilderness and who has come to me in the past in moments of worship. The deeds of the past are the promise of the future.

God is here … somehow.

God is silent. But God is here.

God has delivered. And so … I shall trust. He is not done with me. I have earned outer darkness. I am a wretched man but God has done wonderful things to me and through me and with me.

God is silent now.

But he has not always been silent.

And he will not always be silent.

Selah.