My friend Evelyn1 was on the search committee that called me to my former congregation. A retired teacher with multiple Master’s Degrees, she was always laughing, curious to know what I was reading. But a cancer diagnosis in a friend triggered the Anxiety Disorder and Depression she had long held at bay, and overnight she was transformed into a zombie. At home or in one of her many visits to a residential psychiatric facility, and she’d stare right through you as a tear welled up in the corner of her eye, trapped. How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
Some of my dear friends, another clergy couple in the Midwest, were exhausted. They had one son, healthy and strong, but had been trying for years to have another. The doctor’s visits, the calls to insurance, miscarriage, exhaustion. And most of it in silence – not quite in secret – but few people really knew how hard it had been.2 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
As I watched the coverage on Friday night of the verdict in the Jerry Sandusky case outside that courthouse in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, I couldn’t help but think about all of the victims that haven’t come forward, or that won’t, many my age or older, all holding a painful secret of the abuse inflicted upon them as young boys by this legendary football coach. While I imagine they greet the verdict with relief, the pain remains. How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
Psalm 13 begins at the bottom. Maybe you have had a moment in your life when you felt this kind of painful disorientation. And then there’s this horrible seed that is planted in the psalmist’s mind: that he or she is truly alone. And the blame is clear. Today’s psalm is different from earlier weeks in this regard. Psalms 1 and 2 draw straight lines from behavior to consequences. They argue a point found often, but not exclusively, in parts of the canon: Follow God, good things will happen. Do evil, the psalmist writes, and "the way of the wicked shall perish." Psalm 7 begins to argue something slightly different, calling on God for refuge, "save me and deliver me," he writes. But there is still a hint, in verse 3, where our author wonders. "If I have done this," she says, "if there is wrong in my hands," "If…" I have, maybe, done something to bring this on myself, O God. Here in Psalm 13, the blame is placed squarely on God’s shoulders. How long will YOU forget me? How long will YOU hide your face? God is the one, the psalmist writes, who is absent.
The second verse goes deeper into the pain and sorrow, moving us from the situation into how that trouble affects the psalmist’s relationship with God. "The speaker does not," Walter Brueggemann writes, "for a moment entertain the thought that the trouble comes from guilt or failure. It is because of [God’s] irresponsible absence, which is regarded as not only unfortunate, but unfaithful to covenant."3 It is clear for the psalmist, as for most faithful folks, that there is not a distinction between what happens in the world over here, and one’s relationship with God. They are not broadly distinct things, but are inseparable. We know that from our own experience – the things that happen to us throughout our lives can be the things that build up our faith in powerful ways, but can also be the things that bring our faith crashing down. My friend Andrew Taylor-Troutman tells a story in his new book about being fresh out of seminary and serving as a hospital chaplain. He was called to respond to a tragedy, to a grieving father whose only child had just died. The father walked up to Andrew, stuck his finger into his chest, and shouted, "Your God did this to my child!"4 Our relationship with God has everything to do with our experience.
And the psalmist demands an answer. All of the YOU, YOU, YOU become I, I, I: Consider me. Answer me, O my God. If you still are my God, anyway. Give light to my eyes, or I will die. Our author is trying to communicate what is truly at stake. This is not only a person’s problem, she writes, but something that has implications for God. The psalmist appeals to God’s vanity even – we tend to get manipulative when we are grieving. If my enemies prevail over me, O God, what does that say about you?
And then, after verse 4, everything stops. The psalmist waits. It is a terribly long and painful wait, "a wait in the darkness of death, a wait in disorientation, a wait until ‘hell freezes over.’" There must be such a wait, Bruggemann writes again, "because there is no other court of appeal."5 Who else is there to call? For a few moments, or a few years, he waits. It is the waiting of a couple of days for a pathology report. It is the waiting of years for a relationship to be reconciled. And it is the waiting that may not end, of a dream you may know will be unfulfilled, the hope for the person you will be, yet somewhere inside you wonder if you have the gifts, you wonder if you are strong enough. And you lie there, in the middle of the night. Waiting.
Then, in that sliver of space between verses four and five, something happens. We have no idea what, if anything, in the situation changed. It might have been good news: the scans were clear, mom got better, the meeting you feared was about downsizing was really about something else. That would be fantastic. But in this real, beautiful yet broken world, that doesn’t happen all of the time. Sometimes the relationship can’t be salvaged; sometimes the addiction persists despite everyone’s best efforts. What I think happened is that something changed within the one doing the crying out. Somewhere they decided to trust, they say. The waiting, in the darkness, even pretty furious at God, is NOT something to be afraid of or ashamed of, but is at the essence of what it means to be faithful, to seek an authentic relationship with God. Maybe God empowered someone, one of us, to be a reminder of God’s presence. Maybe they were reoriented by a chance to do something for someone else. That is one of the best ways, I have found, to see something new – to, in the midst of all the things you have going on that are very important, to clear space in your schedule and push yourself do something for someone else, to serve a shelter meal, to give an additional gift, to even pick up the phone and call someone you hadn’t seen in awhile. God doesn’t transform us in isolation, but changes us, TOGETHER, into a body that can, even in the darkness, defiantly sing God’s praise.
Saturday a week ago, Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi went to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace prize that she won while under house arrest 21 years ago.6 She was finally freed in 2010 and has begun to lead slow democratic reforms in that country, still filled with too much secrecy and state-sponsored brutality. In her speech to the King and Queen and 600 others in the majestic city hall, she said, "Often during my days of house arrest, it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world," she said. "There was the house which was my world. There was the world of others who also were not free but who were together in prison as a community. And there was the world of the free." She knew others were suffering, but felt so unbearably alone. She didn’t see her husband in his final four years – in 1995 he was diagnosed with cancer and in 1999 died. So many partners in the work disappeared. The award, she said, even though she didn’t see any concrete difference in her life, even though she was still locked in that house, the award shattered her isolation, she wrote. She knew someone was paying attention. She didn’t feel alone anymore.
That’s the best guess I have of what happened in between verses 4 and 5. The psalmist was reminded he wasn’t alone. She sensed that God was at work, regardless of the facts on the ground. They realized their faith was much more than what happens to you or to me. That faith isn’t based on us, but comes as a gift from God, who is gracious, who is filled with steadfast love, who causes our hearts to rejoice – not a blithe, superficial happiness – this Hebrew word for rejoice, exult, is also occasionally translated as tremble.7 We rejoice, even as we tremble, in this broken and fearful world. No matter WHAT, the psalmist is given the courage to boldly proclaim: "I will sing to the Lord, for God has been good to me."
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Name changed
2. Story used with permission.
3. Walter Brueggemann, "The Message of the Psalms," (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), p 59.
4. Andrew Taylor-Troutman, "Take My Hand: A Theological Memoir," (Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2012), p 118.
5. Brueggemann, Message, 59.
6. Suu Kyi: Nobel Peace Prize shattered my isolation
7. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Fifth printing, March 2000), p 162.