Faith In Real Life Blog
“Receiving Love in Times of Tribulation”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyerian Church
February 1, 2023
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night but find no rest.3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.4 In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.5 To you they cried and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.6 But I am a worm and not human, scorned by others and despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me;they sneer at me; they shake their heads; 8 “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!” 9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.10 On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. 11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near, and there is no one to help. 12 Many bulls encircle me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; 13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.16 For dogs are all around me a company of evildoers encircles me; they bound my hands and feet.17 I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; 18 they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots. 19 But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid! 20 Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! 21 Save me from the mouth of the lion!
From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. 22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: 23 You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! 24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted;he did not hide his face from me but heard when I cried to him.25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever! 27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.28 For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord 31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.
I have come to realize that my brain gathers often disparate pieces of information and experiences like the dots of color of an impressionistic painting. If I can get out of the way of myself, and trust the process, a pattern—a picture emerges. Dots of color that I could not imagine belonging together begin to reveal something beautiful. I am in the middle of such a process as I speak. I am going to share some of the dots of color and hopefully share a new (or perhaps very old) way of thinking about God’s presence in tribulation.
I woke up with a recent anthem repeating in my head. We sing a lot of anthems but when one lodges in my sleep and plays in the background of my waking, it is almost always a deeper part of me reaching for God. This time the anthem lyric that has had a grip on me is “My heart is ready…”. Ready for what, I had no idea. But the lyric calms me and I knew it was important. It was the first drop of paint on the canvas. In real life, this process is not sequential. It occurs more as a simultaneous splash but for purposes of explanation, I must take the drops one by one.
In the last month of Sabbath discussions, we read God rested on the seventh day. Much was said about the rhythm of life requiring rest—all true but I became immensely curious about the concept of God resting. It was fine and important to talk about our human needs for rest but what did it mean for God to rest? I flippantly asked: “What happens if you call for God and it is her day off?” That thought was disturbing. Wasn’t God supposed to be always present—”Our refuge and strength in time of trouble…”? How could both things be true? More dots of color that certainly did not go together.
Then I remember the many times Jesus pulled away from the press of needs around him—and was unavailable. The story that came immediately to mind is of Jesus healing the mother-in-law of Peter. After Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, the word spreads and people are lining up at the door seeking relief but Jesus withdraws. The disciples searched him out. The people needed him but Jesus chose to move on. There were ‘good reasons. In Matthew 8—Jesus responds to the press of human needs by saying “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In Luke 8, he simply says “…I was not sent here for this purpose…” and in Mark he says much the same thing— “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.” That is all well and good but what about the people left in line asking for help that he walked out on. Surely, they would have sung a song of tribulation. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” A very discordant drop of color.
Then I began to consider that perhaps my idea of how God should be present was different than how God was actually present. I had long since recognized that Jesus redefined power as vulnerability—a particularly frightening idea when the word crucifixion enters the conversation. But Jesus chose vulnerability over force and the need to control. There have been countless sermons on the expectations of a warrior messiah who would free the people from Roman oppression. But that was not the Messiah who came. How might this thinking apply to the concept of God’s presence?
I realized that in ordinary life, I seek to love my wife, my children, my parents and my friends. I am certainly not always present in any physical sense. I am often not available when I am asked for help. It could be that it is my day off or I am on vacation or engaged with some other member of my circle. There are many possibilities, but my physical absence does not change the fact that I love all of these people. It does affect how those people experience my love. And if I reverse it. I often need love—and even if I ask nicely, I must wait. Sometimes I feel desperate, sometimes lonely, and in the extreme, sometimes betrayed. Though I protest violently to the words, “If you really loved me, you would….”, all of us have little tests for the people who claim to love us. I am no different. A couple of my most common goals are to try to be as reliable and disciplined as possible—expecting reciprocity. That way, as long as I do my part, my needs will be met. Surprise surprise—that has not worked out very well. Likewise, responding to unspoken requests and needs has not led to others reading my mind and responding in a way that actually works. There is nothing wrong with discipline and order. There is nothing wrong with seeking to please. I am good at both. But when they are unconscious means to evoke or test care, they will lead to disappointment, anger, indignation, blaming and martyrdom. I’ve been down that road too.
But isn’t this what happens when we pray for relief—sometimes heartbreakingly painful times—and we do not find the relief we seek. The Psalmist tries to explain his situation by saying: “But I am a worm and not human, scorned by others and despised by the people.” A little too dramatic for my tastes but certainly a common human attempt to make sense of pain and suffering. Why me? The most likely explanations are, “What have I done to deserve this.? It must be something.” —which adds to the suffering. Or “What kind of God is this who leaves me when I need her most?” —which leads to indignation and despair. Both implicitly deny that hard truth that suffering is a regular part of life. We do not get a choice about how we or the people we love will die. Some go gently into the night. Some have sudden catastrophic accidents. And some linger in progressive pain. We don’t get relief from that any more than the Jews got relief from Roman oppression. And here is the kicker—-that does not mean God does not love you. That does not mean you do not have life and have it abundantly. It does mean life in God is the confidence that God loves us——even when we cannot find him—even when we are in great pain—even when death is encroaching. God is not here to fix our dilemmas though that is often how we define what it is to be loved. God is here to share them. There is nothing in life that separates us from the love of God. The dots of color are starting to come together.
Theology and ideas of God can only point us toward the experience of God. The experience of God is the deep peace that comes from feeling safe and valued in a world that is often otherwise. It is grace filled. It is miraculous. It leads to a kind of safety and security that allows us to bear rejection and pain. Any of us who have been in a long relationship that includes this kind of love, knows that love prevails, even when we are in conflict, are misunderstood or unavailable. That confidence allows us to face and use our vulnerability in our everyday exchanges. It is what it means to be saved. We are not bound by human expectations and definitions. We feel sufficiently loved to love the person in front of us.
It is an incredible gift to feel loved and safe in a relationship. When it occurs, we are transformed, and we rejoice. That rejoicing comprises the second half of the Psalm (21b to the end). It is an almost unbelievable shift. The same person who feels so profoundly forsaken, endures long enough to have his own ideas of God stripped from him. However it occurs, when that happens, he discovers new life—no matter what that life brings.
There are more dots of color. But I want to add one more important one. We have an incarnate God for a reason—God (the essence of love) knows that we must find ways to love in the language of the beloved. The secular concept of love languages is old news to scripture. The idea of God is too big for us. We tend to imagine God in our image rather than live in God’s image. We create a God designed to serve us and comfort us. But when we believe in an incarnate God, we cannot hold on to our self-serving images. We believe Jesus shows us what God looks like in human form. We must see and hear differently. What we call love is often at odds with how God loves. We should not expect God to love as we love. We should seek to love as God loves.
In real life, it is not enough to tell our children (or our spouse) we love them. That would not be much comfort to an infant. They need to be fed and held. Only after we have a sufficient dose of holding and nurture can a child tolerate mother’s absence. The child needs reminders of a mother’s care to hold on to our sense of well-being and connection. We need reminders that God is present, and those reminders come in the form of people who show up—people who are present. Such presence gives life. That is a cause for great gratitude and rejoicing but it does not reduce the pain as much as it gives us a way to endure.
I hope your heart is ready… to trust that God loves us—even when we cannot find him—even when we are in great pain—even when death is encroaching. God is here to share every part of life. There is nothing in life that separates us from the love of God.
Let it be so.