Sunday, October 09, 2005

Psalm 142: Living in the Suck

I shared this meditation, on the daily lectionary Psalm for Friday morning, with my fellow chaplains on Friday. I hope you enjoy it.


There is a brutal honesty in the psalms. Psalm 142 is no exception. And what we encounter in Psalm 142 is not hope, or praise. Psalm 142 is a complaint, a truthful and frank grievance about how bad it is when things suck. Even what might look like words of hope are thinly veiled accusations about how things are not as they should be. It is not a psalm that looks forward to the time when things don't suck. It is a psalm about living in the suck.

The first two verses tell us what kind of psalm it is:

1 I cry to the Lord with my voice; *
to the Lord I make loud supplication.

2 I pour out my complaint before him *
and tell him all my trouble.

It is a psalm of supplication, of complaint. But as soon as the psalmist begins the complaint, bitterness is revealed in the guise of praise:

3 When my spirit languishes within me, you know my path; *
in the way wherein I walk they have hidden a trap for me.

God knows where the psalmist is headed, and knows what is coming next. God knows where the traps are on the psalmist's path. The psalmist knows there are traps, but not where they are; God knows where they are; God is not letting the psalmist know where the traps are. For the psalmist to say "you know my path" is not to praise God for His knowledge, but to complain that God does not share this knowledge. What looks like praise of God's knowledge is a veiled accusation of God's unwillingness to let us know what will preserve us from the hardships of life.

The psalmist continues:

4 I look to my right hand and find no one who knows me; *
I have no place to flee to, and no one cares for me.

5 I cry out to you, O Lord; *
I say, "You are my refuge,
my portion in the land of the living."

If God is a refuge, God is a refuge that the psalmist cannot find, at least in this moment: as we will see in verse 7 the psalmist has not found refuge, but is instead in a prison. Nor is the psalmist now in the land of the living, but is instead in a land of torment:

6 Listen to my cry for help, for I have been brought very low; *
save me from those who pursue me,
for they are too strong for me.

7 Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your Name; *
when you have dealt bountifully with me,
the righteous will gather around me.

The psalmist is not in a refuge, or in the land of the living. He is in the land of his enemies, and they are pursuing him. And verse 7 is again bitterly pious: we already know that the psalmist is surrounded by strangers and uncaring people. This last verse is not so much about hope, as it is about the fact that the psalmist is in prison, surrounded by those who do not care for him, and that God is not dealing bountifully with him at this time. They are words of accusation. God is able to save the psalmist and lead him into the land of the living and to place him among the righteous, but does not. The psalmist is left running for his life, in the land of uncaring enemies.

There is a freedom in this honesty. The psalms are our voice, the voice of the human condition. And in Psalm 142 we encounter the reality that sometimes things suck, and that we are tempted to cover over the crappiness of life with pithy and meaningless pseudo-pious phrases, like "all things in God's time," or "I'm sure things will get better, I know," or "God has some purpose in this." These are all tempting words for the chaplain visiting a sick person, and even for that same chaplain who feels alone, tired and even abandoned by God in their work.

What this psalm teaches us is that there is a time to let our praise of God's knowledge and power be spoken with a bitter ironic edge. There is a time to complain to God and tell him that he could be doing more for us, but is not. Sometimes it is ok to just live in the suck, the suck of the human condition given voice for us in the Psalms.


Blogger Sam Charles Norton said...


Monday, October 10, 2005 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger Kim said...

Thank you for this one. Good timing.

Monday, October 10, 2005 6:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll say good timing. Sadly, I am not as healed as I thought and it has been a depressing two days. Thanks for the insights.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005 1:00:00 PM  
Blogger Arthur Brokop II said...

it is indeed beneficial to know that the great heros of the Bible, and the Author of the book itself know/knew full well the desperation felt when life sucks. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005 10:37:00 AM  
Blogger Arthur Brokop II said...

M.E, again, two comments in a row, but hours apart. I just wrote a post on Psalm 142 - like just got even more suckier here in my corner of the world, and the psalm hit even closer to home than when I first read your post this morning. Again I thank you for sharing it. Good timing for me too.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005 9:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your essay. I found it while skimming through this site. I have been contemplating Psalm 22 at great length lately as I go through a divorce. The phrase "You lay me in the dust of death," seems so apt. I read that and think, "this person had as lousy a day as I have had." And as you say later, there is comfort in recognizing that sometimes things just suck, and everyone goes through that, and as faithful people we can still believe and communicate with our God without being forced into hollow sounding optimism. Thank you.

Friday, November 04, 2005 12:43:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home