Where is your god?

Psalm 42 has always been one of my favorites. Like so often in the Psalms, here too the psalmist is besieged by people who mock him for trusting in God. “Where is your God?” they say to him as he suffers torments physical and spiritual. The language of this psalm is pure poetry. The psalmist is like a thirsty deer; his dialogue with God is like deep calling out to deep. This is language worthy of prayer to God, “the living God”:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

My soul is cast down within me;
    therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
    from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
    have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.

It’s beautiful, and doesn’t it make you want to speak to God like this? This is not the kind of petty prayers so many of us still pray well into adult and late adult years – prayers to the “man upstairs,” the big vending machine in the sky! No, no, this is “deep” calling to “deep, at the thunder” of God’s “cataracts.” This prayer is fully aware that God is not the “man upstairs” of American vending-machine religion. This is a God whose “waves and billows” have overwhelmed the man who is praying this psalm. And yet, this awesome God of cataracts and thunder and waves, is a God who comforts the psalmist at night with his love and song.

But take away the poetry and this psalm is a prayer for deliverance. The psalmist wants relief, he wants God to do something. The psalmist remembers his joy- and song-filled journeys of pilgrimage, and these memories comfort him. He reminds his troubled soul to trust in God. (Note the “glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving”; not the downbeat, boring, and bored, chants that many people consider correct Orthodox worship!)

These things I remember,
    as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
    and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
    a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

I say to God, my rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
    because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body,
    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

“Where indeed is your god? Why is he not rescuing you?” The question lingers thousands of years after the psalm was composed. Where was God when 3-year-old Aylan Khurdi drowned with his 5-year-old brother, Galip, and their mother, Rehan, while trying to cross the sea from Turkey to the Greek island Kos?

Aylan and his older brother Ghalib in a happier moment.
Aylan and his older brother Galip in a happier moment.

The body of Aylan washed up on the shore of Turkey’s Bodrun Peninsula. Pictures of the lifeless body created immediate controversy. Many newspapers, TV networks and websites refused to show the pictures because of concern not to disturb readers and viewers. Yes, let’s not offend the dainty sensibilities of European and American viewers. I would understand if the concern was about sensationalizing or cheapening the image of a dead child. But no, the concern is always about offending or disturbing viewers; not about exploiting the dead! We have no problem exploiting the dead; we have no problem blowing up hundreds every day with drones and cluster bombs. We have no problem with death or causing death; we just don’t want to offend anyone. And that’s where the modern mockery lies.

The lifeless body of Aylan washed ashore.
The lifeless body of Aylan washed ashore. Many media outlets refused to show this photo so as not to offend or disturb viewers.
Aylan’s body carefully and reverently carried away by Turkish solder.

“Where is your god,” indeed? Unlike the psalmist I do not look for miraculous interventions by God. The god who works miracles to save people and prevent disasters and wars is not my God. That kind of god does not exist. The God I believe in is right there in that lifeless child and in the soldier who undertakes the sad task of carrying the lifeless body away from the water. That soldier is like Joseph of Arimathea, who carried the lifeless body of Jesus down from the Cross. The images above are indeed images of Christ. Christ is that child, the same Christ who surrendered his own body to the care of humans: Joseph of Arimathea and a Turkish soldier. There was no rescue.

Perhaps some people might find my statements here contrary to certain things we believe. There was a resurrection, after all – at least in the case of Jesus. Yes there was – and there is (or will be). But the resurrection is a different matter altogether and does not change the truth of these images. I love the poetry of Psalm 42, but I don’t share the psalmist’s hopes for rescue. It seems quite clear that God has left the job of rescuing to us, his alleged followers or believers. How well are we doing in that regard? Or is too offensive and disturbing to ask this question? We are after all, very sensitive people and we prefer no one to question our faith. It’s a private thing after all. Good luck with that line when you meet God.

In chapter 2 of the Book of Job, the wife of Job could not take all the physical suffering inflicted upon her husband. She said to Job, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” It’s interesting that the Hebrew word translated as “curse” in our English Bibles could also be translated as “bless”! It should be interesting to study how a single Hebrew verb can mean both “curse” and “bless” – but clearly in this instance, Job’s wife was inciting Job to turn his back on God, since God obviously was doing nothing to rescue Job. She was, in essence, asking the age-old question, “Where is your god?” The Book of Job, of course, goes on for another 40 chapters after these words of Job’s wife, so we’ll leave that book alone for now.

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