I didn’t get past the first psalm reading this morning, it echoed so closely to the lament heard from a colleague just yesterday. A colleague who for all intents and purposes seemed to have all her ducks in a row. A colleague brave and wise enough to know to seek prayer and counsel from me and others because ‘they weren’t’ – the ducks weren’t all in a row and she is just a mess, inside. One thing after another has come her way and though she appeared to be tackling each challenge full on, the truth is she is barely hanging on, rightly angry, and discouraged, close to being overwhelmed and incapacitated. And close, I thought, to throwing her hands up – and not to – God. Giving up on her faith as a way forward, rather than leaning into it as a way out of the mess.
I heard her lament, hugged her, prayed for God’s pax to come to her – the peace that passes understanding, and left our small group session feeling at a loss for words. I might be close too, to giving up rather than leaning in were I faced with the same challenges.
I went to bed with a petition for the right words or some brilliant idea for how she could untangle and manage and get the ducks back in a row – as the google image here illustrates – something to help her get her head out of the water.
So, this morning, when Psalm 55 popped up and I heard first my friend’s lament echoing throughout, I felt as if my prayer had been answered. I had prayed for discernment – for words of counsel – for some words that would reassure and ease her distress and my prayer for those words were here before me.
Or were they. For someone so distressed – as distressed as the psalmist – for someone inclined to distance themselves rather than lean into God – how would this lament possibly comfort let alone encourage or nudge them forward?
Then, I recalled Charles – an elderly, widowed, childless ‘Mainer’. He lied in Room 284 at Central Main hospital (CMCC) where I did my chaplaincy training a few summers back. One day I stopped by to find him alone in the room. He had just been told that not one but four dark spots were seen on his lungs. Cancer. He had decided against the long needle aspiration test that would confirm lung cancer – because, well, what would be the point. Radiation was not in the cards. He smiled at me from his bed – “Even though my insides are such a mess, I kind of want to keep the outsides looking good. Think the good Lord wants me to go out that way, too.”
I smiled back. He was a good looking man – on the outside – and even though the cancer loomed inside, his insides were really all right, too. He had a real peace about him that he hadn’t had the first time we met.
The first day I met Charles he had just been checked into the hospital for tests after having passed out on a construction site job. I was new to a chaplaincy training program at the hospital and came into his room as a sort of cold-call in my rounds to meet the new patients on the floor where I was assigned.
Charles was a strapping, even healthy looking, lumberjack-built man in his late 70’s. Which contrasted sharply with his demeanor. There, in bed, sitting straight up but weeping – having just learned that one spot had been found. His insides were a mess. Literally. That bad news had opened up a flood gate and he was desperate to talk with someone. He was scared. A spot on his lung. He sought my ear. My counsel. Lamented with me.
Charles had a strong, abiding faith. He knew his bible. Started to wonder with me about why God did this or that. This mess inside of him, how was he to deal with it because after all that he had been through – well – he wasn’t going to add anything to the mix that wouldn’t allow him to keep living ‘naturally,’ as he said. That was in the bible, wasn’t it? he asked? Don’t put chemicals in your body – or something along those lines.
I couldn’t keep up with his scriptural references nor make sense of the way the bible had been taught to him, including the whole ‘if you really truly have faith, then you will be healed’ pitch that made him think he might not have been as good a Christian as he should have been so he could be healed. So, I asked him to just tell me his story. In his own words. I was here to listen. The answers to his worries and questions would come sometime – but maybe not now. “Maybe right now you just talk and I just listen,” I suggested.
And, so, through his tears he began to talk about his life. And why he was so sad. I heard his lament. Charles’ life not only echoed Psalm 55 but so many details read just like it, too – orphaned, one injury and loss after another, premature deaths of two children, a divorce. And then – this man of steadfast faith experienced the deepest of betrayals. A person of God – a pastor – told him find another church because he was divorcing.
This was a deep blow to Charles – a betrayal as described in the psalm. His first reaction was to leave – not just that church, but church-going, altogether. He wouldn’t participate in bible studies, wouldn’t go to worship, wouldn’t do any church-y things.
But he wouldn’t stop praying. As angry and wounded as he was with God and the pastor of God’s church, Charles wouldn’t let ‘them’ or circumstances take his faith from him.
Like Job. Pretty angry with God and all that God seemed to have done to him, but praying to Him, nonetheless. Charles found himself talking to God more and more. He leaned in. He prayed more. Settled for a season in the psalter, carving out a time every day just to rant at God. He found new people who wanted to talk about this God and eventually a new worship community.
Even with the push out of the small-God church he had been a part of, Charles did not distance himself from God or from the Word. He leaned in. His faith not weakened, but strengthened. He knew he was in God’s hands then – and now, here, he paused to say while telling his story – all of which had been told through tears and had been painful to listen to in some ways as he lamented his newly diagnosed fate – but he paused at the end, smiled and said, “I am in God’s hand’s right now, here in this moment. I am not scared. I have cast my burdens to the Lord, and I know he will see me through. Even this.”
I came home from work that day and recorded Charles’ story in my scriptural journal. And the next day, low and behold, the first psalm of the day was Psalm 55. And I remembered then, as I do now, that it was at the last verses where the answer to the lament is found.
22 Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.
Charles had leaned in, once again, when all on the inside was destroying him, literally killing him. But he was not moved. That righteous man was not moved.
Fast forward to this morning, and waking to this psalm after having gone to bed with a prayer for the right words for my colleague. My encounter with Charles prepared me in a way I hadn’t realized at the time for hearing what the Lord would say to my colleague.
No magic formula for untangling the mess inside. No easy move of one duck here or there to get everything lined up.
Lean in. Now more than ever. Go to God’s word – more. Pray – more. Worship – more. Cry out – more. Trust and know that you are in God’s hands. And he will sustain you.
Here is a lovely musical interpretation of Psalm 55 by Hope Music Worship.