Wednesday, 31 October 2018

On the brink of despair... (2)

Darkness is my closest friend. Psalm 88

Last time I encouraged us to reflect on Psalm 88, the saddest of them all. Unique among the150 psalms, it has no real glimmer of light or hope.

I said that it prompted two questions to my mind, but I only had space for the first: Why does the psalmist (named as Heman the Ezrahite) feel this way? I suggested three possible answers: first, he was afraid of dying; second, he felt God was angry with him; and third, he was unbearably lonely. Please go back to the previous post if you are interested in seeing these thoughts opened up a little.

The second question is: What can we today take from his psalm? Again, I suggest three answers...

First: It encourages us to be honest and realistic.

For me, the greatest thing about Psalm 88 is that it is there at all. Isn’t the Bible supposed to be about joy and hope? Aren’t the psalms, in particular, supposed to be prayers bursting with faith?

Well, yes, of course. But not everywhere! Life in general simply isn’t always like that - and the Bible reflects that plain fact. And so there are many passages like this which give us permission (if I can put it that way) to be honest about times of sadness, depression and utter misery. Heman calls out to God in verse 15, “I have borne your terrors and am in despair.” How’s that for honesty!

I wonder how many of us Christians today take the trouble to read the Book of Job? - a man crying out in protest to God, feeling that he is being treated unjustly. How many of us reflect seriously on, say, 2 Corinthians 1:8-11, where the apostle Paul - yes, the great apostle! - declares how, in difficult circumstances, he “despaired of life itself... we felt we had received the sentence of death...” (verses 8-9).

Not to mention, of course, the agonised cry of Jesus himself on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

There are Christians - well-meaning, I’m sure - who simply refuse to accept this: if you are really Spirit-filled you will always be happy and joyful!

You wonder if they have ever read these passages, for when they say things like that - things which are true neither to scripture nor to life - they end up making the rest of us feel guilty and inadequate. You wonder: are they in fact wearing a mask, simply pretending something that isn’t true?

So, let Psalm 88 teach us to be honest and realistic.

Second: this psalm stirs up compassion. Or should do, anyway.

One of my main faults is that I tend to lack sympathy for people in trouble. My own life has generally been so easy that I can find it difficult to be patient with people who are struggling in the depths.

So to me this psalm is deeply challenging: how would I have reacted to Heman the Ezrahite if I had heard him pouring out his desolation? I’m sure I wouldn’t have been so crass as to tell him to “snap out of it” or “pull himself together”, but I fear, to my shame, that that thought might have been lurking there in my mind.

Reading his words makes me feel I want to go to him and sit with him in his ash-heap, to say “I will be your friend!” But would I in fact do so? Or would I rather turn my face the other way - like with those rough sleepers in the shop doorways in the city centre?

I can’t think of a more perfect prayer than Graham Kendrick’s beautiful little song: “Soften my heart, Lord,/ Soften my heart./ From all indifference/ Set me apart,/ To feel your compassion ,/ To weep with your tears./ Come soften my heart, O Lord,/ Soften my heart.”

Do you too need to pray for the gift of compassion?

Third: this psalm stimulates faith. Or, again, it should do.

There’s one vital thing I haven’t mentioned - perhaps because it’s so easy to miss the obvious. The fact is that Heman the Ezrahite is still praying!

That makes me shake my head in sheer admiration. Where I might have long since given up, he prays “day and night” (verse 1), “every day” (verse 9), “in the morning” (verse 13). He pleads with God that “my prayer should come before you” (verse 2). His faith, however stretched, is still alive.

He’s a wonderful example of the old saying that “when it’s hardest to pray, that’s when you need to pray hardest.” Corny? Maybe. But true!

I can only encourage anyone reading this who is “in the lowest pit” (verse 6) to battle on in prayer. Perhaps all you can offer are groans, sighs and cries, but please persevere: your prayers are not in vain.

I can’t help wondering if, when I get to heaven, I might meet dear Heman the Ezrahite. Will he come up to me, dancing, jumping and glowing with joy, and say “Yes, I’m the man who wrote that psalm! - that psalm you wrote a blog about. Oh, I was going through a tough time then! But isn’t it wonderful to be here now; isn’t it just wonderful?”

And I think I’ll find myself agreeing with him...

I’m being completely fanciful, of course. But... who knows?

Dear Father in heaven, please help me to cling to you even when you seem far away. And help me too to be a true friend to those who are in the depths. Amen.

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