“When Life Crashes” Psalm 88
Rev. Sean Weston Job 30:16-31
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL 2 Corinthians 4:7-15
June 24, 2018
What is now called the AIDs epidemic reached its peak in the 1980s. I was not alive at that time. I have, however, heard many stories from those who were there. In the early 1980s, there was very little good information about the often-fatal disease. It was seen as a disease that largely affected gay people. The vast majority of the nation, including the government, was indifferent or outright hostile. Plenty of people thought God was ridding the nation of bad people. Pat Buchanan, communications director for President Reagan, said that AIDs was “nature’s revenge on gay men.”
For those affected, it was a time of intense grief. Many of those who had the disease were abandoned by their families, friends, churches. Death left a string of grief behind as people kept losing their loved ones to a slow and painful death. I know of one church in Tulsa that many attended in hospital beds. This experience brought layers of trauma that still affect the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community today.
Almost a decade ago, I heard a story about this time during a sermon that has stuck with me since. During that crisis, a chaplain walked into a hospital room to see a young man dying alone. I’ll call him Spencer. Life had certainly crashed for him. He seemed to have given up all hope. As they talked, the chaplain learned that the man had lost all of his family and friends. He had been shunned by his church. See, once they learned he had AIDs they also learned he was gay. This was, sadly, something the chaplain saw every day.
She asked if she could share a Psalm with him, a prayer from the Bible. He agreed, reluctantly. She read Psalm 88, which Jean read this morning. As she read, something seemed to change in him. His eyes lit up a little, his body posture opened. And then, as the last verse was read, he began to weep.
“You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.”
“I didn’t know,” he said, “that anyone in the Bible knew what I am going through.” Psalm 88, after all, isn’t a popular church Psalm. It shares about the tough stuff but never get to part about loving and praising God. It is a prayer in the voice of somebody who is sick and dying, completely abandoned their society, who feels even that God has inflicted wrath on them.
Hearing the words of pain in Psalm 88 didn’t save Spencer’s life. But all of a sudden he had words for what he was going through – words from the Bible, of all places. He was not alone in his pain. He shared this experience with the Psalmist, the person who wrote that prayer we now call Psalm 88.
Sometimes, words of pain, sadness, lament, are all we have.
Job was one of those people who had done everything right in his life. The book of Job tells us that he “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1a). He treated his family well, he generously shared with people with less than him, he was fiercely devoted to God. And things in his life were going pretty well.
Until one day, when life crashed.
In the same day, his sons and daughters were killed by enemies, fire came from heaven and killed the sheep and servants, the camels were killed by other enemies. Can you even begin to imagine the grief? There are no words. Yet, “in all of this,” the story goes, “Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.”
Then, he was inflicted with terrible sores, “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” He sat miserable, suffering in ashes, and his wife said to him: “Curse God, and die.” But Job refused to speak a word against God.
Job had three friends – Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, that heard about everything Job was going through, and like any good friends, they traveled to be with him. They sat with him silence for a week.
Then Job spoke. He cursed the day of his birth. His friends, no longer able to see Job suffering so intensely, began to share some words. Eliphaz said it must have been something you did, because we all know that God punishes only those who do bad things. Bad things happen to people who do bad things, and good things happen to people who do good things. So, Job, accept this punishment from God, because there must be a reason. But don’t worry, it’ll get better. It has to. God will do right by you – everything always turns out right at the end.
Then Bildad opened up his mouth and said something like what Eliphaz said. God is always good. You just have to ask for forgiveness. Zophar noted that living a life of sin leads to significant consequences. Later, Zophar accuses Job of being wicked, saying that Job is wrong even to question God’s actions. And they all promise – eventually – that everything’s gonna be okay. And, they get offended– especially Zophar – when Job dares question God. Such things are not to be done.
None of that does much for Job.
It can be hard to know what to do with the book of Job. It a challenges a lot of things that good religious people think and say. But I think Job is one of the most important books in the Bible. It speaks to something very real in human life: the reality that terrible, terrible things happen to people that don’t deserve it, while the people that seem to deserve to be knocked down a peg do just fine. All of you have stories of how your own lives have been touched by tragedy – some of which I have been honored to hear. And one of the biggest things that comes up in tragedies large and small is that people start to ask -how can there be an all-powerful, all-loving God in a world with poverty? Where people die young? Where wars are fought for profit and ego? How dare I call God powerful and good when children and babies are being separated from their children at the border? How dare I call God good when I hear the weeping and despair, when I know the lifelong trauma caused by such evil acts?
This is one of the deepest, oldest struggles around. People have been struggling with this since people have existed. In theology – God-talk – there is a word for this struggle: theodicy. The problem of evil, of suffering. Many of the answers we give can be plain foolish, so I don’t want us to rush to answers too quickly in an effort to avoid being uncomfortable.
There will come a time when your spirit is angry at God, whether you actually think in your head that God is responsible for bad things or not. And, like Job, like the Psalmist, you may find that God seems nowhere to be found. You may find yourself wanting to yell to God “answer me!” If you would just show up, we could have this out! But how dare you ruin my life without even answering for it? Answer me, God!” And if you feel that way, you should say so.
The great Kentucky writer, farmer, and activist Wendell Berry said this: “The distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence. There is a world of difference between the person who, believing that there is no use, says so to himself or to no one, and the person who says it aloud to someone else. A person who marks [their] trail into despair remembers hope – and thus has hope, even if only a little.”
Relationships are in the most danger not when angry words are spoken but when no words are spoken. When you don’t talk to one another at all. When you no longer care what they do. That, not words of anger or despair, is one of the strongest sign that a relationship is broken. Our relationship with God is similar. Angry words to God, sad words to God are still words to God.
The words of pain in Psalm 88 gave Spencer a sliver of hope on his lonely deathbed. He was still dying. But the Psalmist’s honesty gave him permission to be honest about his real feelings. He could admit his brokenness. He could admit his questions, his anger, his pain. He could share those things with the chaplain, and with God. There is power in that honest sharing. His relationship with God and neighbor, once broken, was in that moment restored. He was not alone.
This isn’t a bad time to remind you that we’ll be exploring the lament Psalms more on Wednesday night at 7.
When life crashes, when the usual answers don’t seem to work, there is power in sheer honesty before God and one another. The honesty of Job, of the Psalmist. Words of anger or pain or hopelessness. As long as you don’t go silent, you are still holding on to your relationship with God, your relationship with others. There is hopeful faith somewhere in you. You may not feel that faith. You may only feel it in glimpses, in moments. Even so, you will keep going somehow.
 From “A Poem of Difficult Hope” in What Are People For?, page 59.