Back in the “good old days” (that didn’t seem so good then) of the late 20th century we seemed to have a “motivational icon” for every decade. For the 70’s it was a “Smiley Face” with the words “Have a nice day!”. In the 80’s we sang “Don’t worry, be happy” with Bobby McFerrin. For the 90’s we were told by Nike to “Just do it!!”
Those days seem to have gone away in the first decade of the 21st century, haven’t they? We’ve experienced the sea-change of fear brought about by the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon; executive wrongdoing on a massive scale that cost many their homes and livelihood; wars in Afghanistan and Iraq resulting in the death of thousands of our young men and women; the threat of nuclear weapons development by Korea and Iran—our sworn enemies; high gas prices; mortgage failures. What should the icon be for the first decade of the 21st century?–an “orange alert”? Taps being played at a gravesite of our young men and women killed in the wars? a foreclosure sign? the song “Brother can you spare a Dime?”
The pain and suffering we see is enough to drive us to despair and a company called Despair, Inc. has tapped into it to make a buck by selling “pragmatic pessimism”. For example, they market a glass mug with a line in the middle that says “half-empty”. Also lithographs that feature beautiful photos with depressing twists, such as a photo of a dark sunset with the saying: “DESPAIR: It is always darkest just before going pitchblack! ” or a photo of a lightning storm, saying: “PESSIMISM: Every cloud has a silver lining, but lightning kills hundres of people each year who are trying to find it”
Despair, Inc. has tapped into a truth that all of us know and few of us want to admit—Pain and suffering is a grim reality for human beings. It is part of the human condition.
In my work as a hospice chaplain I saw a lot of pain and suffering along with valiant attempts to alleviate it by palliative care specialists every day. We all know that no amount of wealth, no measure of security, no low-fat, oat-bran diet can defend us against suffering, pain and eventually death. At birth there is the knowledge that this new life will eventually end. Good or bad, rich or poor, we know that pain and death are just a word, a mistake, an accident or an illness away from us all. Depressing? Exactly! Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide with over 9 percent of Americans affected by it every year.
We’ve all known some amount of despair, haven’t we? It happens in times of stress like a move, a job loss, an extensive illness, a loss of a loved one through divorce or death, an economic downturn or a natural disaster such as hurricanes, floods, forest fires. While this despair usually lifts in time it is very stressful at the time and can leave us broken and in fear of our very lives—feeling like we have been abandoned by God.
This is not just a 21st century feeling—-it is part of the human condition and has been with us through the ages. We see it in Psalm 22, our text today, written hundreds of years before the birth of the Christ. The Psalmist feels he is surrounded by enemies, broken in body, and spirit. He cries out for help with the words: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” In the midst of pain and impending death the psalmist seeks the intimacy of a relationship with God, but God seems so far away from helping him. However he remembers that God HAS been a help for others and for his nation in the past; but just now he feels he is surrounded, tortured, and almost dead. He hears the sarcastic taunts of his enemies ringing in his ears, “He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him” (v.8). No wonder he asks WHY?
When we our those we love are in pain or are suffering, we also want to know “WHY?” I remember a hospice patient, a man in his late 40’s dying of MS who told me: “Chaplain, when I see God after I die I have only one question for God: WHY!!!
But when we cry out for answers to the “WHY?” question we seldom receive them. Perhaps it is because we are asking the wrong question. THE QUESTION SHOULD NOT BE “WHY?” but “WHO?
Although God may not answer the “why question, God is not silent. Someone has said “What God whispers to us in our pleasure, he shouts to us in our pain”. And what God shouts is: “I am here for you! I will help you through this time! Trust me!
This is what the Psalmist acknowledges. This is what Jesus acknowledged on the cross when he said: “Into your hands I commend my spirit” right before his death. The answer to pain and suffering is not in the “why” but in the “Who”. God will be with us if we trust in God’s presence. And as Paul says: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” If we draw near to God he will draw near to us.
I love the words of a hymn that tells us this. “I was there to Hear Your Borning Cry”.
I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized, to see your life unfold.
I was there when you were but a child, with a faith to suit you well;
In a blaze of light you wandered off to find where demons dwell.
When you heard the wonder of the word, I was there to cheer you on;
You were raised to praise the living God, to whom you now belong.
When you find someone to share your time, and you join your hearts as one;
I’ll be there to make your verses rhyme from dusk till rising sun.
In the middle ages of your life, not too old, no longer young.
I’ll be there to guide you through the night, complete what I’ve begun.
When the evening gently closes in and you shut your weary eyes,
I’ll be there as I have always been, with just one more surprise.
I was there to hear your borning cry. I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized, to see your life unfold. Amen.