Monday, June 1, 2015

A Psalm We Don't Like To Pray

O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath!
 For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me.
 There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones because of my sin.

 For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me…
I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
 O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you.
 My heart throbs; my strength fails me,
and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.

My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my nearest kin stand far off.
 Those who seek my life lay their snares;
those who seek my hurt speak of ruin and meditate treachery all day long.
 But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear, like a mute man who does not open his mouth.
 I have become like a man who does not hear, and in whose mouth are no rebukes.

 But for you, O Lord, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.
 For I said, “Only let them not rejoice over me,
who boast against me when my foot slips!”
 For I am ready to fall, and my pain is ever before me.

 I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.
 But my foes are vigorous, they are mighty, and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
 Those who render me evil for good accuse me because I follow after good.

 Do not forsake me, O Lord! O my God, be not far from me!
 Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation.
Psalm 38

Reflection – Well there is no question that we’re heading through a bit of a rough patch with the Monday Psalter – these ‘late 30s’ psalms do tend to focus on the sorry side of life quite a bit. It poses a challenge, sometimes, praying these psalms when they come up in the office, when after all nobody is particularly standing aloof from me, I am not feeble and crushed specially, and the light of my eyes is doing just fine, thank you very much.

It is easier to know how to pray a psalm of praise and thanksgiving when one is a bit down in the dumps. Then, it is a question of faith, and of affirming the truth of the Good News even when one is not feeling that truth too firmly. But how are we supposed to enter a psalm like this one? We don't like to pray this psalm. And why should we?

Of course sometimes this psalm is pretty much exactly what we are feeling, or is the simple fact of our life feeling or no, and then it is a most salutary and beautiful prayer of faith in the midst of calamitous suffering and sorrow. But even if it is not, it has great value, as much as we don’t exactly ‘enjoy’ this kind of psalm.

First, it is a remedy for spiritual smugness. So you are in good health and surrounded by friends and generally doing OK in life? Congratulations, then. Just don’t confuse that with really doing well in life. Tomorrow everything you and I might enjoy today could be gone, wiped out in some calamity or other… and what then? Is our true life, our true security, our true hope the Lord, or our own good fortune? This psalm reminds us that the ‘success’ of any human life does not rest on the size of your goody bag, but on the size of your faith, hope, and love.

Second, this psalm does indeed tell us the truth of our life. Even if the external specifics don’t match up too well, we are indeed surrounded by enemies who seek our ruin—the evil spirits, just to mention a few million. And our spiritual health is indeed fragile even if our bodies wax strong and vigorous. At any moment we can collapse into mortal sin, besides which spiritual illness the most grave of physical sicknesses is nothing. Psalm 38 calls us to not be so damned self-satisfied, since we’re not really doing that great.

Third, the psalm calls us out of our own immediate experience to pray for and with all of humanity—the terribly ill person writhing in pain on their bed, the dying man weak and infirm, the persecuted Christian in the Middle East. We are all one in Christ’s Body, and their pains and sorrows are ours, or should be. Psalms like this are a good way to pray for our brothers and sisters all over the world who are in sorrow and misery.

So all things considered, while we might not automatically flip to Psalm 38 when we’re looking for a little prayer pick-me-up, it’s not such a bad idea to pray it, and the psalms like it, from time to time. And above all, to put all our hope and confidence in God and His power to save and deliver us no matter what is happening to us now, or what might happen next.

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