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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.

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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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“Where is your God?”

christ_raising_the_son_of_the_widow_of_nainToday’s (19 Oct 2014) Gospel reading at the Liturgy was Luke 7:11-16, Jesus raising the son of the widow of Nain. As I reflected on this miracle story, what came to mind was Psalm 42. I imagined this widow praying this psalm at her son’s death and what she might have continued praying after her son’s burial, if Jesus had not intercepted the funeral procession and raised her son from the dead. It’s one of the most beautiful psalms in the Bible. You can read the whole Psalm here in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV).

This is a prayer by someone in torment, who is being attacked and mocked by people, who taunt him or her with the question, “Where is your God?” He or she – and let’s just say she, since I’m imagining this psalm as the prayer of the widow in today’s Gospel story – prays to God and longs for God. She remembers how she would go with the people to the house of God, to the Temple, to worship, to bring offerings, singing songs of praise and thanksgiving. And that memory, that connection with worship and being with the people of God in fellowship of praise, is what is sustaining her right now. And I might as well say it here at the beginning: that’s what’s missing for many people today who place other priorities in the way of fellowship with God and the people of God. Coming to church is not going to solve all your problems. But I lament the disconnect that many of our people have with the words that have sustained generations upon generations: words of the Bible, words of the Liturgy. These words – this living memory of fellowship – can make all the difference for someone who is in despair, who is ready to give up on herself and on the world. She begins with these words:

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?

The human soul cries out for God, like a deer cries out with thirst. I don’t know what the cry of the deer sounds like, but I read somewhere that it’s quite something to hear. The human soul is thirsty for God, and Jesus says: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.” (John 7:37) Jesus is the answer to the thirst of the human soul that longs for God. “When shall I come and behold the face of God?” Jesus is the face of God!the face of jesus (detail from an icon by ilian rachov), tempera on wood

My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”

“Where is your God?” That is the question that men and women of faith often hear when things are not well in their lives. It’s a mockery: “Look at all the terrible things in your life: sickness, shame, financial ruin, marital problems, children in trouble. Look at all that’s going on in your life. Where is your God, the one you put your trust in? Why isn’t God helping you?” That’s the voice; and if it doesn’t come from people around us, it comes from a voice inside us. Because there is another voice inside us, a voice that challenges us and seeks to separate us from God. Call that voice Satan if you wish – I don’t – call it whatever you wish. It’s like the wife of Job, what she said to him after all the disasters that came upon him: “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” (Job 2:9) It’s the same voice – the voice that tells you to give up: give up on God, on life, on your family, on the world, on yourself.

Those of us who see the face of God in Jesus Christ, in whom we also quench our thirst for God, point to Jesus and we say, “Well, my life is a mess, but I do believe in someone who is the life and resurrection, who met a woman at the gate of the city and exchanged his life for the life of her son. He raised her son from the dead while he himself marched on to his own death on the Cross.” So when that voice questions “Where is your God?” I can point to Jesus. There is my God, “Emmanuel, God with us” – not one who waves a magic wand from heaven and solves all my problems and takes away all my suffering, but who meets me at the gate and walks with me in everything I endure. And that too is the message of this Psalm.

emmanuel

The woman and the psalm do not give up. “These things I remember,” she says.

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.

In her torment she can still speak of festival and joyful shouts and songs. These memories sustain her. What is going to sustain people who do not know what it is to sing praises to God? Who don’t know what it is to pray with others? You want to pray by yourself? Wonderful. You want to go out into the forest or on a mountain and find God? Beautiful. And perhaps by doing so you will also learn to defend the wilderness and animal life. Be an environmentalist, care for the natural world; God is there. Love of nature sustains a lot of people. But is it enough?

Sports have become the all-consuming activity for families. Sports are important for the health and well-being of children. But is it enough to raise a family with sports at the top of the family’s weekly agenda? Can sports ever take the place of a child’s memory of being in church and taking part in the procession of praise and communion? Sports teach a child to be a team player. But is that all a child needs to learn? Conformity to the demands of the coach? Does this teach a child to be a team player and an obedient servant of the corporate state? What about individuality? The ability to think for oneself? How are we enabling children to be individuals and not just team players? By allowing them to live in fear of the coach? It is up to individual families to say, “No, I will only go this far and no further. Because God is important in the life of our family. I will not follow the crowd. I will follow the crowd like this woman does, in the Psalm and in the Gospel story, to that place of communion with God. I will make the right choices for my family, and they might not always be the choices that will please the neighbors and the coaches.”

This Psalm illumines our way through the rough patches of life. And it comes to the end with another question:

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.

Do you ever talk to your soul? Talk to your soul, it’s very healing. Our souls are thirsty, they do thirst for God, for the living God. Let your soul find the face of God in communion with our Lord, Jesus Christ.