Lenten Devotion: Sketch for Lent, In Two Parts
Saturday, February 24, 2018
Sketch for Lent, In Two Parts
Psalm 22:1-2, 22-23
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
The words echo, from the midst of a high, clear sky. And they linger in the quiet of a late winter’s afternoon. Like the sunlight that dazzles off the fresh fallen snow, they are hard and bright and difficult to bear.
The lament of the Hebrew poet — words which Jesus appropriated as his dying cry — echo across time and space. They intrude into this ordinary moment of my ordinary life. I hear them, even though I would rather not. They make me think. And thinking really isn’t a bad thing.
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
In this case, though, these thoughts aren’t particularly pleasant or happy. And to be honest, I would rather ponder how the Giants’ lineup will be helped with the addition of Evan Longoria at third base than consider this lament: the words that, according to Matthew and Mark, Jesus uttered as he died.
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
But the cry which opens Psalm 22 persists. And its words remind me that I can’t get away from the cross. Reflections of a favorite professor come to mind. If you want to be Christian, he would say, you have to consider the cross. That is hard, for it requires you to go to this uncomfortable place: this place where Jesus himself felt the absence of God. Going there isn’t easy.
Nor is it pleasant to reflect on what the cross says about us. The cross’s judgment in regards to humanity is scathing. The fickleness of the mob (which demanded Jesus’ death), the corruption of both church and state (which declared him guilty of blasphemy and sedition), even the cowardice of his followers (who abandoned Jesus to die by himself) —these uncomfortable truths linger with those ancient words.
and by night, but find no rest.
“There is nothing pretty or pleasant,” my theology professor would say, “about the death of Jesus.” These reflections coalesce with the Psalter’s ancient cry. In the stillness of this bright and clear late afternoon, I ponder them. I listen, listen as they speak to me — in a place deep in my soul.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
But there are other words which reach into this ordinary moment. And I hear them as well. They too echo across my soul’s landscape. At once these particular words seem out of place – especially when compared with those I heard at first. They don’t seem to fit. For they are words of praise, not lamentation.
And I struggle with the dissonance that I hear and feel. There is this difficult and off-putting conflict between two opposite and seemingly irreconcilable expressions. Despair and hope. Lamentation and praise. Pain and glory. I listen to the words and the clash between the discordant realities they represent. The dissonance grates against my senses.
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
In a time long ago, I would resolve such a struggle by retreating into the safe space of biblical studies. From that cloister, I could conclude that the two different and competing voices of the text suggest a redacted pastiche — something carelessly and artlessly combined by an anonymous editor who just lumped everything in a kind of literary mishmash.
You who fear the LORD, praise him!
Yet I listen closer, deeper, and more carefully. And the grating dissonance gives way to a profound, even beautiful harmony. They fit. These conflicting, opposing, even contrary expressions of the human soul fit together. There aren’t two voices, only one. I hear a single voice, a voice whose cry begins in lamentation.
But it ends in praise. The voice carries not just the despair of the cross but also the affirmation of the empty tomb. The words of the poet stitch together defeat and victory, death and life, the passion and the resurrection. Again the theology lesson from long ago comes to the fore of my mind. Of course you have to consider the cross. But you also have to think about the empty tomb.
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
Humanity’s last word was death. God, however, had a final word — a word of life. A word of power. A word that reaches beyond defeat to claim victory. Darkness is overcome by light. Sorrow is displaced by joy. And life reaches beyond death to declare God’s absolute and ultimate power.
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
I think of all this and wonder. The mystery of our faith – captured in the conflicting realities of death and life, despair and hope – is beyond the grasp of my little mind. But I listen to the harmony, the beautiful and exquisite harmony of grace. And in obedience to the ancient poet’s command, I give all glory to God.
Rev. Tim Lanham
SFTS Trustee; SFTS MDiv
Pastor, Sunrise Presbyterian Church, Great Falls, Montana