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21 February 2015

Where Are You, Lord? (Reminiscere / Lent 2)

Psalm 22

Ravi Zacharias tells the story of Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize winner and survivor of the Holocaust, when he was forced, along with a few others in a concentration camp, to witness the hanging of two Jewish men and one Jewish boy. The two men died right away, but the young lad struggled on the gallows. Somebody behind Wiesel muttered, “Where is God? Where is He?” Then the voice ground out the anguish again, “Where is He?” Wiesel felt the same question irrepressibly within him: “Where is God? Where is He?” Then he heard a voice softly within him saying, “He is hanging there on the gallows, where else?”

Elie Wiesel's powerful experience describes the "shattering disorientation" Walter Brueggemann has called "the pit"; so does this Sunday's psalm.

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? / I groan in prayer, but help seems far away. 2 My God, I cry out during the day, / but you do not answer, / and during the night my prayers do not let up.  3 You are holy / you sit as king receiving the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted /they trusted in you and you rescued them. 5 To you they cried out, and they were saved / in you they trusted and they were not disappointed. 

6 But I am a worm, not a man / people insult me and despise me.  7 All who see me taunt me / they mock me and shake their heads.  8 They say, “Commit yourself to the Lord! Let the Lord rescue him! / Let the Lord deliver him, for he delights in him.” 9 Yes, you are the one who brought me out from the womb / and made me feel secure on my mother’s breasts. 10 I have been dependent on you since birth / from the time I came out of my mother’s womb you have been my God.  11 Do not remain far away from me, / for trouble is near and I have no one to help me. 12 Many bulls surround me; /powerful bulls of Bashan hem me in.  13 They open their mouths to devour me / like a roaring lion that rips its prey. 

14 My strength drains away like water; my bones are dislocated /my heart is like wax; it melts away inside me. 15 The roof of my mouth is as dry as a piece of pottery / my tongue sticks to my gums. / You set me in the dust of death. 16 Yes, wild dogs surround me— a gang of evil men crowd around me; / like a lion they pin my hands and feet. 17 I can count all my bones / my enemies are gloating over me in triumph. 18 They are dividing up my clothes among themselves; / they are rolling dice for my garments.  

19 But you, O Lord, do not remain far away! / You are my source of strength! Hurry and help me! 20 Deliver me from the sword! /  Save my life from the claws of the wild dogs. 21a Rescue me from the mouth of the lion, / and from the horns of the wild oxen! 

21b You have answered me! 22 I will declare your name to my countrymen! / In the middle of the assembly I will praise you! 23 You loyal followers of the Lord, praise him! / All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! / All you descendants of Israel, stand in awe of him! 24 For he did not despise or detest the suffering of the oppressed; / he did not ignore him; / when he cried out to him, he responded. 25 You are the reason I offer praise in the great assembly / I will fulfill my promises before the Lord’s loyal followers. 26 Let the oppressed eat and be filled! / Let those who seek his help praise the Lord! / May you live forever! 27 Let all the people of the earth acknowledge the Lord and turn to him! / Let all the nations worship you!  28 For the Lord is king / and rules over the nations. 29 All of the thriving people of the earth will join the celebration and worship / all those who are descending into the grave will bow before him,  / including those who cannot preserve their lives. 30 A whole generation will serve him; / 
they will tell the next generation about the sovereign Lord. 31 They will come and tell about his saving deeds / they will tell a future generation what he has accomplished.

By assigning only the "happy half" of our psalm on the Second Sunday in Lent, the lectionary steers us away from that stunning first verse (not to be heard in worship until Good Friday). But it doesn't quite succeed, does it?  

אֵלִ֣י אֵ֭לִי לָמָ֣ה עֲזַבְתָּ֑נִי

Even a quick glance makes me shiver; something about that cry of despair makes my blood run cold:

"My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? / I groan in prayer, but help seems far away."

The Hebrew verb עָזַב  (aw-zab') means "to leave, forsake, or loose" and is related to an Arabic verb meaning "to be remote or absent". This powerful word included in its ancient context the male prerogative to divorce (literally to “forsake” one's wife). The psalmist states that God has removed himself, left behind, departed from, or even “loosened himself”!

This Psalm of Complaint accuses God of being unreasonably, unexpectedly, and inexcusably absent.  The complaint is followed by a series of petitions that implore God to be present again; finally, there is a celebration of rescue.

In the following passage from Isaiah, God states that he has left Israel, for a time:

I left you (aw-zab'), but only for a moment.
    Now, with enormous compassion, I’m bringing you back.
In an outburst of anger I turned my back on you—
        but only for a moment.
It’s with lasting love
        that I’m tenderly caring for you.
 (Isaiah 54:7-8)

Even though those verses, too, have a "happy end," Israel consistently found that it had good reason to worry about its relationship with God, for now and then God chose to be absent. Brueggemann describes this as the tension between God's self-regard and God's regard for Israel.

Because God will not and cannot be controlled, but is free, there are no clear-cut answers to many of our questions. Walter Brueggemann illustrates the starkness of this by answering some of the anxious questions:

"Where now is your God? Here and everywhere, but in ways one cannot administer.
How long? Until I am ready.
Why have you forsaken? My reasons are my own and will not be given to you.
Is Yahweh among us? Yes, in decisive ways, but not in ways that will suit you."

Far from getting lost in feeling powerless, the waiting of the psalmist is the tough and tenacious sort that I alluded to in a recent post. Instead of crying incessantly or kicking someone, he begins what Brueggemann has called the way out of the pit:

First, he voices his complaint directly to God, the source of help. Second, he offers specific petitions. Finally, he thanks God.

Elie Wiesel was once asked whether he believed in God. He answered, "No", explaining that after the holocaust he could no longer believe in God;  but then he added, "I'm a Jew, I must believe in God, so what I do is believe against God."

Taking God with utmost seriousness even to the point of risking your faith --  as both Elie Wiesel and our psalmist do -- is hard work, and such wrestling is not very popular.

Denial is cheaper: "I never go to church on Good Friday," said one of my church members, "it's just too sad". Along with my member, many "happy-happy-joy-joy" people don't want to deal with suffering, so they skip over Friday and go straight to Sunday. But if we are honest, we know that's a bad idea.

Would I entrust a "happy-happy-joy-joy" brother or sister with my pains and tears, with my loneliness and doubt?  I'd be a fool to do that.

I would look for a person who is willing to stay with me on my "Friday of Pain" or on my "Saturday of Waiting". That person would never try to make me feel better or drag me away to a "happier" Sunday, but cry out with me in my Gottverlassenheit (Godforsakenness).

So. When you worship this Sunday, enjoy the "happy" half of Psalm 22, but don't forget that the psalmist started out at "My God, my God, why?", that before he got to praise and thanksgiving he had to wrestle, and give blood, sweat and tears.

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