Chronic health problems are hard. Many of you know this from your own struggles. Maybe you know because you are a caregiver, maybe it’s because you know what it is like to watch helplessly as someone you love battles against a seemingly endless string of ailments, insurance company denials and appeals, an ever-growing pile of bills matched by a reciprocal lack of resources, and the constant fear that one more thing added on the pile will simply break them. It is from these depths that the psalmist cries out: “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?”
Lament psalms begin in the Pit, understood as a proper noun. They begin with the anguished, exhausted cry of one who has been beaten and bloodied, bandied about by circumstances and laid low. Like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, three times prostrating himself and begging God for there to be another way. The Pit is where so many African-American mothers and fathers are each time a Black child is killed by those with weaponized hatred, or who, despite repeated studies showing that major police departments across the country are systematically and structurally racist, are killed in routine traffic stops whether they comply or have the seeming audacity to assert their rights. The Pit is where so many historically and currently oppressed persons return each and every time justice proves to be just-us. It is where they reside when they say, “Stop killing us,” and the legal and cultural response is, “Yeah, but…”
All the lament psalms save one have a doxology, generally a two-line hymn of praise in the shorter ones, like Psalm 13. “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” Psalm 88, which I have tattooed on my left forearm, begins and ends in the Pit. I appreciate that God’s word has such a psalm. Because sometimes you can have a very strong faith, but still be exhausted, angered, frustrated, and confused about why life seems to be so cruel. You can say, “Look, Jesus, I love you like a fat kid loves cake, but I am about to break, brother. Why is this happening, and is it going to continue without abating?”
Psalm 13 has its own greatness, though. It begins in the Pit and then well-describes the process many of us might go through when we are turning to God in a state of discomfit. Verse three reads, “Consider and answer me, O Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death.” I interpret this as, “God, you better give me patience or kill me, lest something really bad starts happening up in here.” And this psalmist describes people we might term haters today: “My enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed,’ my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.” Right? Those people who seem to cheer for you to struggle and break; those who are willfully and actively working to deny you equal protection, access to affordable healthcare, or even basic human decency. Sometimes we pray to God and say, “Please help me get through this because I can’t let them break me. I can’t allow the hatred of some that is supported by the indifference of others to defeat me. I need you, God.”
Sometimes, the only thing that will get us through the present moment is looking back and seeing how God has been with us before without our recognizing it. Do you know what I’m describing? A period you can look at now and say, “I was wondering where God was, and it wasn’t until months later that I could look back and say, ‘Oh, that’s what you were doing! You’re a sneaky one, God!’” Sometimes all we can do is say, “I know you’ve dealt fairly with me in the past, and I’m trusting in that right now because, frankly, I ain’t got nothing else.”
I think one of the mistakes that people sometimes make, myself included, is thinking that the Bible says all we need to do is have faith, follow the rules, and God will bless us with great health and wealth. Some people internalize this interpretation and spend their whole lives feeling less than; they interpret every bad thing that happens to them to be a punishment for sin. Sadly, this has been a common, long-standing practice in the Church. Others interpret this to be a commandment to control others, to tell them what they can or cannot do because, well, God. Because: God. Often they think that they are entitled by God to certain things and others are not; when their lives run into trouble, they lash out at others because the others don’t belong, they are taking what God has given to us.
The Bible tells us to take care of each other; it says that if we want to show our love of God, we have to love people. Our passage from John 6:35-40 makes some seemingly wild claims: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty again.” Taken literally, it’s ridiculous. It’s like breathanarians, those who claim they can survive on air alone. Obviously, the claim from John is that through Jesus we will find spiritual sustenance. And God’s will is that it be available to all who seek. What exactly constitutes eternal life and what John means by raising up on the last day, are details with myriad possible interpretations. The most common has been, if you believe in Jesus you will never really die and when creation is destroyed or transformed into nothingness, God will raise us from the dead. This is the common theology, but by no means is it the only theology.
Jesus says that his will is God’s will; God’s will is expressed in the Great Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul, all your heart, and all your strength.” Jesus adds, “And love your neighbor as yourself.” So, no matter how you look at it, Jesus is saying that love is the great commandment. Further, he says that he will not reject those whom God sends to him; we need not interpret this to mean that God will only work salvation through Jesus. God may send others on a different path, but that does not mean we should love them less. And while there may very well be a bodily resurrection promised by God, I find it equally probable that eternal life and being raised up are statements about spiritual existence and experiences.
There are a lot of hard times around our cabin doors these days. We all have our lists of woes and grievances. I know I do; my health is becoming more problematic on several fronts. But I am in a much better situation than others sitting in the pews and residing in our prayers. I couldn’t get up here this morning and tell you all you need is Jesus and everything will be alright. Because that’s not true. Well, it kind of is. It doesn’t mean that faith will restore you to physical health, or that God will raise from the dead someone you love who was killed by institutional violence. Yet, notice what God did with Jesus; Jesus made God’s priorities, his priorities. Jesus suffered and died an unjust death, but he died how he lived: with radical love in his heart, and words of compassion on his lips.
I can’t lie to you and say that faith will heal you if you mean restoring a limb or revivifying the dead. But God’s promise seems to be that when we center on love—for God, for ourselves, for others—we can endure all things. It may not happen the way we want; it may involve our suffering and pain, even our death, but there’s a promise that love will endure. There’s a profound statement that if we want the most authentic, connected experience of life we can have in our short times here, God has given us a way to make that happen: love. Real, difficult, messy, sometimes exhausting love. It is the closest we get to resurrection, at least until the last day. It is what God sends when we ask for patience, or a reason, or for strength. So, in that way, yeah. If God sent you to Jesus then he’s all you need, because Jesus helps you prioritize your needs. As the Psalmist writes, “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” Amen.