Monday, July 27, 2015

The Psalm of the Accursed

O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of  old:
 you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free;
 for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm save them,
but your right hand and your arm, and the light of your face,
 for you delighted in them…

But you have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies.
 You have made us turn back from the foe, and those who hate us have gotten spoil.
 You have made us like sheep for slaughter and have scattered us among the nations.
 You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.
All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you,
and we have not been false to your covenant.

Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way;
 yet you have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death.
 If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
 would not God discover this?
For he knows the secrets of the heart…

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
 Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
 For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground.
 Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.
Psalm 44

Reflection – This is, perhaps, not a psalm most people are deeply familiar with, nor particular drawn to take up and pray on a regular basis. That’s OK, I think – while every word of Scripture is of divine origin and has its irreducible value and sacredness on that account, not every word of it easily adapts to personal prayer on that account.

This psalm, though, draws attention to the very real experience that comes to almost everyone sooner or later, of meaningless purposeless and truly unjust suffering. We can all accept (reluctantly) that if we make bad choices and mess up our life, there will be suffering that ensues from that. It may be on the small level of driving carelessly and so having a fender bender, drinking to excess and having a hangover, or much more serious and protracted problems.

Most of us can also accept that at times suffering is simply the entry fee of loving in this world. If you want to be a loving caring person, then the problems and sorrows of the people you love become in some degree your problems and sorrows. You cannot really love without a few tears being shed. Most people who opt for the ‘love’ side of the equation of life come to terms with and accept that particular calculus early on. It is better to love and cry a little or a lot than to live a loveless cold life.

But then there is this experience of suffering that doesn’t easily fit into either of the above very broad categories. The strange and painful plunge into mental or physical illness that may have more to do with pulling a bad number in the genetic lottery than anything else. Terrible turns of fortune that at times explode in our lives with Job-like intensity. Terrible sequences of deaths among family and friends, loss of job, loss of housing, loss of relationships… all these things at time become a tsunami of suffering in our lives, and it doesn’t much make sense, doesn’t seem to have much to do with our relative merits and demerits, to say the least.

It is no wonder that in every human traditional culture there is a sense that it is possible for a person to be accursed—we all know people (and maybe some reading this are that person) whose lives just go from one disaster to the next. And I would hold, simply, that there is some truth to that universal human belief.

But Psalm 44 bids us to bring this terrible aspect of the human experience to the God who is shrouded in deep mystery in the heart of it all. The psalm does not offer one particle of illumination about any of it (this is why it is not an especially popular one) but simply lays it out as an unsolvable mystery (which to us it is) and then utters the desperate cry of the human soul to God in the face of that mystery: Awake, O God! Why are you sleeping? Why do you hide your face? Redeem us, because of your love!

And… that’s where it is left. And this is not a bad place to leave it. We don’t know, cannot know, the real whys and wherefores of our lives and why things are the way they are. What we know of these matters is a small sliver of the whole of reality, and we have no way to access the bigger picture, unless it is to contemplate the biggest picture God has given us, which is the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But even in that, we are left crying out, trusting that the God who did this for us has a way to redeem us no matter how grim the situation looks. And this is at times the most we can get to—He loves us and proves that by Jesus Christ, so there must be a way through this current darkness into redeeming love. And Psalm 44 bids us to keep crying out until He rises in and for us, and leads us into the light of his love.

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