(Today I was privileged to speak in the chapel service of my alma mater, Florida College. Here are my remarks.)
I’ll be reading from the end of Psalm 88:
13 But I, O Lord, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
18 You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness.
Since the time that I was a student here, more and more of our hymnals have incorporated actual psalms from the Old Testament, which I think is wonderful. But there is a category of psalms that – so far as I know – our hymnals never include. Psalms like this one – songs of deep mourning and anguish, called psalms of lament. I’ve never sung a hymn in church that concludes, “Darkness is my only friend – period.”
And yet when God gave his people a book of praises to use in worship, he filled that book with psalms like this one. And remember, these were primarily used in Israel’s collective worship in the temple. Even the psalms that sound personal, like Psalm 88, were designed to be sung with those gathered at the house of God, just like we typically sing songs that are individualistic – like “I am Resolved” – in the assembly with other Christians.
But even as our hymn editors have added more and more selections straight out of the Book of Psalms, they seem to have deliberately avoided using songs of mourning like the ones God gave to Israel.
My guess is that we just aren’t very comfortable with talking to God like these psalmists did, or like Job did. It is easy for us to delude ourselves into thinking that church is for people who are just blissfully traipsing through life, and that worship is only for those who sing a joyful noise to the Lord.
This is just not true, however, and more importantly, it is insidiously dangerous. Because real life is filled with pain, with loss, guilt, sorrow. And if I imagine that in order to worship I can’t be in this kind of inescapable anguish, then what I have to do is try to tuck away that grief in a corner of my heart where God won’t see it. And once we start to imagine we can hide things from God, we are on the road to catastrophic spiritual failure.
God gave his people psalms like this one because he wants us – all of us – all of what we are going through – including our hurts and fears. And he is big enough to allow us to speak to him with complete transparency. In the case of Israel, he wanted them to come and do this in the place where his presence was most immediate and accessible – the very temple itself. And through Christ, he invites us to come boldly to the throne of grace and cry out to him with the honesty of our broken-heartedness.
And God wants us to do this together. He wants us to “weep with those who weep,” as Israel did when it sang these psalms. He wants us to realize that we are not isolated in our despair, but that right alongside us are many others who are traveling the same road.
When you read or pray or sing a psalm like this one, you are being reminded that other children of God have faced what you face, have felt what you feel. And just that realization – that you are not suffering alone – is itself a comfort.
Several years ago when I was still single, one of my best friends invited me to be part of his wedding. I was thrilled for him, but I knew that when I went I would face the inevitable barrage of questions from our friends – “So when are you gonna get married?” On top of that, I had come to know a wonderful young lady, who was beautiful in every way, but who I knew would never see me as anything other than a friend. And sure enough, I got a bunch of the “so when are you gonna get married” questions, and each time it only made me sadder as I thought about the girl who I couldn’t have.
I had a long drive home, and as this frustration ate away at me, a song came to mind that I had to find. So I pulled off the road and went into a music store to find it. I picked up a Michael Buble cd, put it in the car, and heard these words:
You give your hand to me
And then you say hello
And I can hardly speak
My heart is beating so…
Oh I am just a friend
That’s all I’ve ever been
Cause you don’t know me
Now, the version I really wanted was by Ray Charles, because – no offense to Michael Buble – that white boy hadn’t suffered enough! I needed the voice of someone whose life-time experience of oppression and injustice gave his voice the sound of a wail!
Why did I need that song? Because it reminded me that I’m not alone, that others have felt the same frustration – and if he could sing about it, then maybe somehow he got through it.
God wants us to know that the darkness is not our only friend, and that we are not alone, because we can be honest with each other, and most of all, with him.