Hanging on the cross, while being executed on trumped up charges as a traitor, Jesus cries out in prayer praying Psalm 22, an ancient prayer of God’s people expressing confusion and loss. Jesus prays alongside the people of God through the ages “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”.
As a chaplain and pastor, I have heard so often the voices of people facing illness and loss, overwhelmed by the darkness crashing into their lives with no light at the end of the tunnel express exactly these words. They feel betrayed by God. They feel forgotten by their Maker or, worse yet, unfairly attacked. If you have ever been through unexpected illness, job loss, the sudden death of someone you love, you know I’m sure all to well such feelings.
Many of them express to me uncomfortability with these feelings. They say that they are afraid to voice them – for their families or the church tells them to think on the positive, to not give up faith, to believe. They are told that their anger, fear, uncertainty, and sense of rejection is wrong and dangerous. It is putting a barrier to God. Some tell me they have heard “If you feel God isn’t there, who moved?” Sometimes these words of theirs cut right to my heart to hear for I remember saying just such things in a well-meaning way early in my Christian life and ministry, not realizing the heartache I was inflicting with my well-meaning words.
Now I make space for such cries of pain, for such questioning and fear, communicating it is ok. I do because of this example of Jesus’ and, when asked, I share about his example.
Jesus knows the way of God better than I ever will, as God in the flesh, and he follows the pattern of Scripture which is not, as I had for years been led to believe, of pushing down and denying our pain but instead boldly confronting it, presenting it before God openly and truly. So Jesus raises to God a prayer openly expressing his own feelings of being forsaken, being cast aside and forgotten, being trampled on by the Almighty. Jesus joins the cries of God’s people through the ages found in the Psalms who cry out “How long o Lord, hide thou away? When will thy wrath not burn like a flame?”
This is so different than what popular religion and spirituality often presents. Too often what we see is more like the caricature of pop spirituality presented in this clip from the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon” –
Jesus instead is fully honest with God, with Himself, with others. He lets Himself feel, know, and express the depth of his pain.
A funny thing happens through this. At the end of the story, a Roman centurion recognizes Jesus as truly God. This is a man in the occupying army that oppresses Jesus’ people, grinding them beneath his boot. It is a man with a hand in killing Jesus. It is a man with little to no knowledge of the God of Israel and of Scripture. Yet not despite Jesus fully feeling, recognizing, and expressing his depth of anguish, questions, doubt and fear but because of him doing so, this man is able to see Jesus as God in his midst, one in whom the Sacred fire of heaven is burning bright.
This is a powerful lesson to us. In actual fact, honesty about our questions, doubts, fears, pain does not drive us further from God. Trying to ignore, deny, “turn it off” when those are our reality does. Truly being honest to God, to ourselves, tears down the barriers and allows us to truly experience God – even if we cannot in that moment use “God” to describe what we experience. And when people see that honesty, they are able to see the Sacred that dwells in our hearts and lives just as the Centurion saw the Sacred presence in Jesus.
Instead of turning it off, we are called to open ourselves to know and feel the fullness of who we are, and share that with God. This is what Hebrews means when it tells us to come boldly before the throne of grace. I think it is also what mystic and theologian St Ireaneaus meant when he said the glory of God is a human life fully alive. For God is present and alive in powerful ways in all aspects of our lives – in our joys and moments of peace, in our commitment to careful living, in our passions and sexuality, and yes in our moments of pain, of doubt, of fear. God is not the one far off and untouched by our suffering. Rather God is the One in whom we live and move and have our being who is ever in, with, under, through, and surrounding in embrace all living things and us as well. So that if we experience pain, doubt, anguish, and even feelings of God-forsakeness in some mysterious way God is also present deep within, through, and around those feelings and moments. We discover that presence not by ignoring those feelings but by truly facing into them and expressing them for by doing so we open ourselves up not just to ourselves but also to the One who dwells deep in every soul, life, and moment.
May we learn to embrace each moment, however dark, as a place in which we can be fully ourselves and in being fully ourselves know God more deeply. Let us also learn to be ones like the Centurion who are able to see and help others see the Sacredness present in their lives in these moments of pain by giving them person to fully be themselves rather than being like those who try to tell people to shut off the light of their true feelings.
And I sure ain’t whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher,