Something of a very personal nature today.
I feel particularly lost and hopeless right now. It is the usual thing that has bedeviled my life for the last four years — a chronic inability to find work, or keep it, and with it, an inability to find or make a home for myself, my wife, and Molly, one of the young people I’ve done ministry for and with over the last year who is seeking a home with us.
Some home. My life is very nearly an absolute disaster right now.
And all the issues that come with it — a life on handouts, a loss of my sense of purpose, that I am valued, that I matter to anyone, and a sense of tremendous failure. Like I have failed everyone. I’m tired of handouts, and I want nothing more than to earn bread and rent by the sweat of my brow. But I don’t seem to be allowed to do that right now. Jobs and careers seem to me now to be magical things, out of the reach of a mere muggle such as I. I watch seminary colleagues accept new calls and have kids and buy homes and wonder, “What’s that like? Why can’t I have that?” It’s not that I lack skills, experience, and education, it’s just that nothing of what I can do seems to be valued by anyone.
It’s hard to live like this, with this persistent sense of failure and pointlessness. I feel like the psalmist, one of the sons of Korah, as we writes in the 88th Psalm:
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
Sheol — the place of the dead. The pit. The place where God is not. The place no one returns from.
It’s interesting this psalm is attributed to one of the “Sons of Korah” (בְנֵי קֹרַח), Korah being the rebel leader in Numbers 16 who, along with his followers, is swallowed by the earth and descends alive into Sheol, the abode of the dead. It’s about being alive in the land of the dead, about being as good as dead, as valued and wanted and thought of as the dead.
A long lost friend from high school pointed out to me recently that I’m breathing and speaking a lot of death of late, that I am unable to speak much blessing in my life right now, and she’s right. In my defense, I am not a happy-face, name-it-and-claim-it Christian, and my very faith came about because Jesus to spoke to me while 3,000 people were dying right in front of me. There is a long and very legitimate history of finding God in the midst of sorrow, suffering, despair, and destruction. I am not the first who has waged a frightened and desperate struggle with God in the darkness, and I shall not be the last.
But she’s right. I have not spoken enough of my blessings. I am alive. My wife is wonderful and incredible, and she is sticking with me through something particularly difficult and awful. The kids who have walked into my life because of the ministry I do — especially Molly (especially Molly!!) — are amazing, even in their neediness and brokenness. I wrote an astounding book (a “spiritual adventure”!) that sells very slowly but fairly steadily, without any work at all on my part. While I’ve not felt any music in my heart for the last few weeks, I have written some beautiful music confessing both my faith and the love of God I have experienced in the world. (“Earworms!” according to one fan.)
I am loved and wanted — there is more love in the world for me than I can count. Love and support from more people than I count.
I am still called, by Jesus, to love others — to proclaim his love — in this miserable world. That call, strangely enough, is as strong as ever.
And … There are young people who have found the courage to run from abusive homes — who are alive — because of me.
So, how many more blessings do I need? To quote from the Qur’an — which of the blessings of my Lord shall I deny?
Yet, I am not a happy faced Christian. Psalm 88 feels right at this point in time. Unlike a lot of psalms, there is no resolution to this sense of abandonment, no ultimate redemption.
God is the author of the psalmist’s travails and isolation, the dispenser of a wrath that comes without redemption. God smites, but does not raise in this psalm. That is how I feel right now, alone, dead, unheard and unheeded, so far from God that there is no hope. That no hope, no rescue, is coming.
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.
To be this alone, with no hope … this is what the psalmist, a son of Korah, the one taken alive into the place of the dead, is expressing. And there’s a time and a place for that. Not every pair of hands raised in praise receives an answer. Not every cry of help to heaven results in deliverance. Sometimes, we are met by silence. Nothing changes. Nothing improves.
This pit, this Sheol, this abyss, is the same place Jonah was cast down when he was swallowed by the fish. But Jonah’s cry is more hopeful than the psalmist’s here is. Jonah has hope, because he knows something the Son of Korah does not know — that God is there, in the pit, in Sheol, in the abyss. God is here, but the God who is here is a suffering God, a God who says, “you are not alone in despair and sorrow.” And that is hope.
Sometimes, it’s the only hope we have.
I know there is redemption. I know that as I dwell in the place of the dead, God’s presence here in this place of the dead means that death is not real. Instead of death, there is eternal life. There is redemption. There is resurrection. So there is hope.
I have no idea right now what concrete form that hope takes. I cannot see that. I know what I want — work and a home of my own — but I also know that may not be what redemption, resurrection, and eternal life look like here. For me. Right now.
What I do know is that the lament the psalmist speaks of here in Psalm 88 is also a faithful expression. It is incomplete, but it is faithful.
Sometimes it is necessary. And sometimes it is all we can say.