A Psalm for Real Life

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.

To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.

All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;

“Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver— let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.

On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.

Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;

they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;

my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.

For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled;

I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me;

they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.

But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!

Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!

Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.

I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:

You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!

For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.

From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.

The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever!

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.

For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.

Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,

and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

Psalm 22

When I told the worship committee I wanted to bring the psalms into worship this summer, Ed Bailey soon sent me a poem I hadn’t read before. It was first published in 1838 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and it’s called “A Psalm of Life.” Longfellow is one of those poets who was super successful during his life but whose reputation started to fall quickly after his death. But this poem is one that is still regularly published and it goes like this: 

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

     Life is but an empty dream!—

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

     And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!

     And the grave is not its goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

     Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

     Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

     Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

     And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

     Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,

     In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

     Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

     Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act,—act in the living Present!

     Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us

     We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

     Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,

     Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

     Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,

     With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

     Learn to labor and to wait.

Longfellow wrote these words shortly after the death of his first wife. And his not-so-subtle message is that life is meant to be lived. We shouldn’t lament the past or take the future for granted. We should go ever forward: achieving, pursuing, and always doing. “A Psalm of Life” is sort of like a 19th century kind of pep talk. And that’s one way the psalms in our Bible can be used. The 150 songs and poems are sometimes a tool meant to inspire us out of whatever we’re living through. But there are times when we can’t do or achieve or progress our way out of this moment. All we can do is just be. So when you can’t move forward, what does it mean to be with God? 

Now I would like to say that being with God means having a constant sense of peace and joy that directs our lives. There are those who experience God in this way but my life with God is a little more chaotic. There are times when things feel like they’re going exactly the way they’re supposed to. But there are other moments when life feels like it’s completely gone off the rails. We find ourselves living through things we never expected while, at the same time, discovering we aren’t who we thought we were. Broken relationships, broken bodies, broken dreams, and broken prayers means we’re not always progressing forward. Time marches forward but we might feel as if we’re standing still, falling backwards, or just spiraling because of things we’ve done or that have been done to us. Life is meant to be lived but that doesn’t mean living is easy. Sometimes we need permission to just be – holding all the emotions, fears, and uncertainty that comes with life. 

Which is why I’m grateful for psalms like 22. It begins in a difficult place with the writer spiraling through suffering. We might expect the author to name what they’re going through. But they don’t. Instead of letting us judge how worthy their suffering is, all we get is the intensity of their lament. They begged God to intervene and their constant prayers have left them exhausted. God has yet to act and they have no idea why. They feel entirely alone – isolated from their God and the community around them. And while we might believe that when you talk to God, you should speak in a way that feels holy and reverent. Yet the author does the complete opposite. They are fully themselves – feeling every one of their feelings – and not hiding behind a facade of holiness, goodness, or that they’re “doing okay.” What they’re going through is hard and they put into words the very strange experience of feeling as if God is gone but also present at the same time. The psalmist doesn’t try to be kind and asks God to be who God claims to be. 

One of the interesting things about this psalm is we’re not quite sure if the author’s bad circumstances ever go away. All we get are hints something happened. By verse 24, their pleading has been transformed into praise but, once again, we’re not allowed to explain away their experience by knowing all the details. Instead we’re invited to just be there and notice how their story is no longer what it once was. We have no idea if their life got better; all we know is their life was lived. And while they lived, God was there. God was there when they felt alone; God was there when they vented and raged. And God was there when they felt isolated from all they knew. Living with God means we get to be with God. And because God is there, our story doesn’t have to remain the same. The author could have kept their story to themselves but instead of thanking God in a private exchange no one else would hear, their words to God became a word from God meant for others. The entirety of their story – their frustration, their anger, and even their joy – was meant to be shared. And it’s through those words, we all see what it means to be and to live within the kingdom of God. Our God is big enough to hold all our anger and our Jesus is merciful enough to not let our story remain the same. Our lives are filled with change – and that change can be amazing, exciting, or downright awful. And while we might try to use the psalms to inspire us into achieving and doing more, we have a God who knows our lives are more than just an attempt to progress into whatever we think is sentimental and good. Life is full of challenges and our journeys that do not always make sense. Yet when Jesus shows up, the limits of our lives encounter the limitlessness of God’s love. That love knows change is real and how difficult it is for us to integrate that change into our lives and into our world. These changes can be amazing, like graduating from high school and heading off to college. But these changes can also be really hard and involve all sorts of  heartbreak we couldn’t possibly be ready for. Life isn’t easy and we don’t have a God who promises that hardships won’t come. What we have, instead, is a God who will live with us and hold through the moments when all we can do is be. Sometimes we will plead and beg and pray and say some not nice things to God. Yet even when we feel we can no longer cling to God, we – through baptism and faith – have a God who will always cling to us. This is the story we get to share with our friends, our church, our neighbors, and the world. And when we share this story, they will discover how they, as they are, can be with God too.