I continue to reflect on prayers which have pulled others and me through. I turn now to Psalm 130, as recorded in the Book of Worship of the United Church of Christ. There it is rendered as follows:
Out of the depths I call to you,
O God, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to my voice!
If you would mark our sins,
Who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
So that you may be revered.
I wait for the Holy One.
My soul waits, and in God’s word I hope.
My soul waits for the Holy One,
More than the watcher waits for the morning.
Depend on the Holy One
For with God there is steadfast love,
With God there is plenteous redemption.
God will redeem Israel from all sins.
There is a richness to the words of this prayer that I think is timeless. If you have ever been in that place of heart-crushing despair, mind-numbing loss, and overwhelming darkness, you know what it is to cry out from the depths. In fact you likely know, as I do, what it is to croak and groan, unable for words to come since the despair is so deep. There are times when life hits us so hard we just want to cover our faces, to block out the world, to run and hide.
But we can’t. As the old country proverb says, no matter where you go, there you are. The only way forward in our pain is through the pain. The pain itself is part of the healing.
I like to liken it to when I was a teenager and I broke my left arm. My parents and I remember the details differently. I remember doing some really risky, adventurous move on my back, running to fast on it, and slamming into something while trying to be daredevil. Mom and dad tell me I was just being distracted by something, perhaps a pretty girl who can tell?, and slammed into a parked car. Either way, whether I was a young adventurer or a hormonal young man, I landed on my left arm. I broke it in two places. The bones twisted in. After it was put in a cast and began to heal, the doctors noticed it was growing wrong. So, at least twice – and to me it feels like it had to be three times – after they scanned that arm, the doctor told me “It’s not healing right. We have to re-break that bone, re-set it, or it will never work right”. And I’ll tell you, I remember the pain of them re-breaking my bone to keep it growing right. It hurt. I curse and swore and yelled. But without that pain, without facing it head on, my left arm wouldn’t work right today. And though it does still when the weather changes throb with pain right where the breaks were, it works just fine.
I feel that our moments in the depths are like this. We want to be pulled out without facing the crushing pain. And to be sure, staying in that pain, letting it engulf us so much we cannot function, is not an answer. That can crush us. That can destroy us.
But so can running from that pain, from acting as if it is an enemy to us. Letting ourselves take some time to sit with, face, and acknowledge the pains and griefs we bear, that is a part of the healing journey.
This is a part of why Rumi said that the broken places in our lives are the windows that let the light in. It is why in Judaism time is taken to eat the bitter herbs and harsh unleavened bread, recalling both the suffering of the people of God and also how in that suffering they found strength to live with courage, resist, and change the world. It is why in Islam a month of fasting is central – to remember that it is through our common experience of pain that, if we are open to its lessons, healing from loss and tragedy, oppression and despair, can come. The enlightenment can break forth on our mountain. In Buddhism it is through a process of laying aside comfort, joining in solidarity with the hurting, that Siddhartha Gatauma finds himself at the Bodhi tree awakened to new awareness.
So too with our faith. For is it not in going to the desert of suffering that Jesus finds the strength to stand against the evils of the world, even unto death? Is it not bread that he breaks apart, drink that he pours out, that pictures his very life? Is it not in his brokenness – and our own – that we are told new life and the healing of the world can be ushered in? It is.
Yet the fact that this psalm, this prayer, calls us not to just suffer in the pit, but to cry out, shows us that it is not suffering alone that brings such renewal and transformation.
We all will suffer. And for some, it is not at all redemptive.
One of the things I hate to hear as a chaplain or a pastor – for goodness’ sake, as a human being – is that tried old cliché, “Time heals all wounds”. It does no such thing. At least, not on its own. We all do know people who endure great pain and suffering, coming out the other side as more open, compassionate, loving people. That’s the truth.
But let’s be real. We also all know people who go through the same quality of suffering and end up bitter. Angry. Hostile. Who pour out their pain upon others, to hold the world at bay.
There is a difference. The difference is that some find ways to open up, to make room not only for pain but also for that pain to be held, transformed.
In all of our faiths, in life itself, there are many ways people do this.
My mother was a painter. I think if her health was better, she still would be. All of us who love her have our homes decked with paintings she made. Mom’s life wasn’t easy, right from the start. She faced obstacles I can’t imagine. She faced struggles in her early life, but fought through them to get an education, becoming the first person in our family I know of to get a Masters degree. She endured a community and religious groups that were incredibly misogynistic. Yet she found the strength to be a strong independent thinking woman. She faced people close to her who drank too much and, when drinking, did things that hurt her. And yet she remained one of the most giving, loving people I’ve known. She also faced health issues – physical and emotional – in herself and those she loved. In the midst of it, she would take paint brush in hand, and create beauty out of her pain. I believe that was her way of facing into all her hurts and not letting them define her, but instead redefining them.
This is what the Psalmist does in their prayer. They know it isn’t magic. For in magic, one need not wait upon another, as the Psalmist must wait on God. They know it isn’t all up to them, for their prayer occurs in partnership with the Living One, the Holy, at the center of all creation. But yet in their prayer, they take up and confront their heartache, pain, and loss. They do it in a way that courageously says: this is mine. I own it. I don’t pretend it is not here. But it does not get to define me. It does not get to shatter me. I will face into it, with you O Living God. And we will take our paintbrush in hand, and paint beauty out of it.
One of my favorite saints, Rumi the Sufi mystic, did this as well. He, like me, was no painter like my momma. But he turned prayer into art, like the writers of the Psalms did. And he wrote what came of this prayer into beautiful moving poetry. The story goes that his dearest and best, Shams, died. There is debate about if Shams was just his dearest and best friend or perhaps a lover. Shams disappeared in the night, his body never found. But it was widely understood he had been killed, by someone scandalized by Rumi & Shams deeply intimate relationship. (For me, that’s an argument for lovers, but I don’t know the culture of the time well enough to know for sure). Rumi’s heart broke. His world, built on this shared love with Shams his dear one, fell apart and shattered.
So what did Rumi do? He prayed. Which for Sufis means he danced. He wrote. And he created the most beautiful poetry, poetry about loss and life. Poetry about searching in every face and eye for the beloved. Poetry that opened him up to life in levels deeper than he could before Shams died. And he found another standing with him, the One for whom Shams’ love was just a shadow. And he knew that in this Living One a-dance through all that breathes, Shams still lived. Like my mother’s artwork and the words of this Psalmist, Rumi’s prayers and poems still speak. As I go through losses in my life, I find they show me a path forward.
Your path ahead may not be like mine. I find it in meditation and prayer. In exercise and friendship. In writing, like Rumi, meditations like this and poems as rich as I can make them. These acts open up my life. They turn the pains I face into windows to the other world, where God dwells and all I have known in their holiness still speak. And through that window I see this world afresh, full of unimaginable beauty, untouched opportunities and also so much pain, heartache, and brutality. I hear the call to be open, open to its beauty. I hear the call my late rabbi friend often raised to tikkum olan, to join Creator God in Their work of mending all that is broken. I also hear the call of a mentor and helper who taught me that all that seems broken is not so, for we come from love, return to love, and are carried by a love all our days – but this love makes us perfectly imperfect. For after all, one’s child is not loveable only once they became able to stand on their own without weakness. No, they are loveable the moment love births them into the world, crying, weak, dependent.
Friend, whatever darkness you might face, whatever shadows, know – you can open up. You can cry out.
I want to close by sharing the link to a Good old Gospel hymn, one my grandma would’ve sung, which pictures beautifully the invitation this psalm gives us to open ourselves to our pain and pour that pain out upon the one who can carry it:
- What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!
Oh, what peace we often forfeit,
Oh, what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer!
- Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged—
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful,
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
- Are we weak and heavy-laden,
Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge—
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In His arms He’ll take and shield thee,
Thou wilt find a solace there.
- Blessed Savior, Thou hast promised
Thou wilt all our burdens bear;
May we ever, Lord, be bringing
All to Thee in earnest prayer.
Soon in glory bright, unclouded,
There will be no need for prayer—
Rapture, praise, and endless worship
Will be our sweet portion there.
Your progressive redneck preacher,