Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 23, 2013

2013.06.23 “Psalm 42 – A Psalm for Those Who Long for God”

Central United Methodist Church

Psalm 42 – A Psalm for Those Who Long for God

Pastor David L. Haley

June 23rd, 2013

Psalm 42

 

Psalm 42 (Grail Version)

Like the deer that yearns for running streams,

so my soul is yearning for you, my God.

My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life;

when can I enter and see the face of God?

My tears have become my bread, by night, by day,

as I hear it said all the day long: “Where is your God?”

These things will I remember as I pour out my soul:

how I would lead the rejoicing crowd into the house of God,

amid cries of gladness and thanksgiving, the throng wild with joy.

Why are you cast down, my soul, why groan within me?

Hope in God; I will praise yet again, my savior and my God.

My soul is cast down within me as I think of you,

from the country of Jordan and Mount Hermon, from the Hill of Mizar.

Deep is calling on deep, in the roar of waters;

your torrents and all your waves swept over me.

By day the LORD will send forth loving kindness;

by night I will sing to the LORD, praise the God of my life.

I will say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me?

Why do I go mourning oppressed by the foe?”

With cries that pierce me to the heart, my enemies revile me,

saying to me all the day long: “Where is your God?”

Why are you cast down, my soul, why groan within me?

Hope in God; I will praise yet again, my savior and my God.

It was in 2007, a full ten years after her death, that the shocking revelations emerged: for most of her life, the woman known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, felt abandoned by God.

The private journals and letters of Mother Teresa were released in a 2007 book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Brian Kolodiejchuk, Editor), with some of the more sensational excerpts published in Time magazine.

But as Father James Martin pointed out in an article in the New York Times, in some ways the title of the book is misleading, because “most of its pages reveal not the serene meditations of a Catholic sister confident in her belief, but the agonized words of a person confronting a terrifying period of darkness that lasted for decades.”  “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss,” she wrote in 1959, “of God not wanting me — of God not being God — of God not existing.” According to the book, this inner turmoil, known by only a handful of her closest colleagues, lasted until her death in 1997.  (James Martin, “A Saint’s Dark Night,” New York Times, August 29, 2007)

It was not always so. In 1946, Mother Teresa, then 36, was hard at work in a girl’s school in Calcutta when she fell ill. On a train ride en route to some rest in Darjeeling, she heard what she would later call a “voice” asking her to work with the poorest of the poor, and experienced a profound sense of God’s presence.

A few years later, however, after founding the Missionaries of Charity and beginning her work with the poor, darkness descended. In 1957, she wrote to the archbishop of Calcutta about her struggles, saying, “I find no words to express the depths of the darkness.”

But to conclude that Mother Teresa was a secret atheist is to misread both the woman and the experience that she underwent. While we may assume “saints” enjoy doubt-free lives, the opposite experience is so common, it has a name: the “dark night of the soul,” St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic, called it.  It is a time when a person feels abandoned by God, which can lead even ardent believers to doubt God’s existence. Even Jesus died with a cry of abandonment by God on his lips, borrowed from Psalm 22.

Even today, sitting here in church on a Sunday morning, some of us may feel this way.  Whether it is a difficult time in our lives – a time of unanswerable questions or unbearable trouble – or a time of depression, we may feel God’s absence more than God’s presence, like the clouds blot out the sun.

At such times, it may be no small comfort to learn that other people of faith have felt this way, and even put it into classical form, such as our Psalm for today, Psalm 42, and its other half, Psalm 43. While each of this pair of Psalms may be sung by itself, they are in fact, two parts of a single, close-knit poem, one of the most sadly beautiful in the Psalter.

As we learned last Sunday, there are five books that comprise the book of Palms, and Psalm 42 opens Book 2, Psalms collected from various sources.  The superscription says it is by (or for) the Sons of Korah, temple musicians; who knows, maybe they were the hottest praise band of the day? (And now, the Sons of Korah!)

Of course, no one knows who the author was, or when it was written. Was this a post-exilic Psalm, written after Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and the people taken away into exile? Or was it the lament of a temple singer in the north of Israel, up near Mt. Hermon, longing to be back in Jerusalem, back in the temple, God’s house?  Was it a personal Psalm, written as a prayer, or a liturgical psalm, written to be sung by everyone? Something analogous today might be Thomas Dorsey’s hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” which came out of his personal experience of losing his wife and daughter in childbirth, but expresses feelings shared by us all.

I find many reasons to love Psalm 42; see if you share them with me?

First, don’t you love the imagery?  The Psalmist could have simply said – as we sometimes say – “I feel down today, I wish I felt closer to God.” But if they had only said that, we wouldn’t be reading it, remembering it, praying it, 2,500 year later.  Instead what they said was:

“Like the deer yearns for flowing streams,

so my soul yearns for you, my God.”

Hunger and thirst, after all, are some of the most common and powerful metaphors of longing for God throughout the Bible.  What they were trying to express would be expressed most memorably by St. Augustine some 800 years later: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

But, in this Psalm, water serves not only as the metaphor for our longing for God, but for the tears we shed in God’s absence. (Remember it’s written in Hebrew, so no two translations will be the same (user experience may vary):

“My tears have become my bread, by night, by day,

as I hear it said all the day long: “Where is your God?”

Later in Psalm 42, the waters well up into floods, at the troubles that swell and sweep over us, like the rushing streams at the headwaters of the Jordan.  At such times we may feel that they are not only our troubles, but God’s troubles, sweeping over us:

“Deep is calling on deep, in the roar of waters;

your torrents and all your waves swept over me.”

Thank God for words and images so descriptive of how life sometimes feels.  Have you ever been there, when it felt like the torrents and waves swept over you?

Secondly, how about like the internal dialogue that takes place in Psalm 42, the same dialogue we hear in our heads and hearts during those inexplicable times of depression and darkness:

“Why are you cast down, my soul, why groan within me?”

Except in our lives, it’s more likely to come out, “I just don’t know what the matter with me, I’ve never felt this way before.”  No wonder we can’t always pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and sometimes need help, even professional help.

Or the alternation between plea and praise?  On the one hand, “God is my joy,” and on the other, “Where is your God?” and “Why have you forgotten me?” This seems so much truer to the real spiritual life, that the sappy “always smiling” spirituality portrayed so often.  As the old Gospel song “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” puts it, “Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, sometimes I’m almost to the ground.”  The Psalms – this Psalm – is like that.  It reminds me of the two favorite prayers of writer Anne Lamotte, which, as she has said, are: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

And – though written so long ago – don’t you identify with Psalm 42’s alternation between remembrance of things past, the “good old days” and hope for the future, whatever it may be. I like the way Eugene Peterson translates it:

“These are the things I go over and over,
emptying out the pockets of my life.
I was always at the head of the worshiping crowd,
right out in front, leading them all,
eager to arrive and worship,
Shouting praises, singing thanksgiving—
celebrating, all of us, God’s feast!”

That is so like us, isn’t it: remembering the “good old days:” when there were two services and the church was filled and Sunday School was overflowing and so were the offering plates, the good old days when Pastor ___ was here.  Or that church we used to go to, the one where worship was inspiring and the sermons were terrific and the music was great, a place and time in our lives where we felt close to God. But that’s now only a memory, present experience never seems as good as times past.

But what the writer of Psalm 42 asks himself/herself, and us, is whether we have the hope to believe that the greatest days, the richest experience of God might not be in times past, but in the future, in times yet to come. Don’t you love the refrain, repeated three times, like a basso profundo in piece of music:

“Why are you cast down, my soul; why groan within me?

Hope in God; I will praise yet again, my savior and my God.”

Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it:

“Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul?
Why are you crying the blues?
Fix my eyes on God — soon I’ll be praising again.
He puts a smile on my face. He’s my God.”

Let me begin to sum up this way: as one scholar has said, “The genius of the Psalms lies in the fact that they are both inspirational and instructive, both poetic and practical. They speak both to the heart and the mind. To put it another way, the Psalms say the things we would like to say, if we had the wisdom, insight, and ability.” (P. C. Enniss, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, p. 154.)  Thankfully, when we don’t have the wisdom, insight, and ability, we have the Psalms.

For those of us who are people of faith, who live in a world that constantly asks the question, “Where is your God?” such Psalms as Psalm 42 are indispensable. Because they not only give words to our longing for God, they point us toward where it may be fulfilled: here in the community of faith, where through worship, the sacraments, and the Word of God, God’s presence is made real.

As for the “dark night of the soul,” in the end, perhaps the most important thing about such times is not THAT we get out of it, but WHAT we get out of it. Does it make us weaker, or stronger?  Will it make us bitter, or better?  Will it turn us inward, introspectively towards ourselves, or outward, towards others, to see and perhaps compassionately understand them for the first time?

Which is what it did for Mother Teresa. In time, with the aid of the priest who acted as her spiritual director, Mother Teresa concluded that these painful experiences could help her identify not only with the abandonment that Jesus Christ felt during the crucifixion, but also with the abandonment that the poor face daily. In this way she hoped to enter, in her words, the “dark holes” of the lives of the people with whom she worked. “If I ever become a Saint,” she once said, “I will surely be one of “darkness.” I will continually be absent from Heaven – to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”

As Father Martin concluded in his article about her in the New York Times: “Mother Teresa’s ministry with the poor won her the Nobel Prize and the admiration of a believing world. Her ministry to a doubting modern world may have just begun.” (James Martin, A Saint’s Dark Night, New York Times, August 29, 2007)

“Why are you cast down, my soul, why groan within me?

Hope in God; I will praise yet again, my savior and my God.”

Amen.

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