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"Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?" Three times in these two psalms (and scholars say that the two psalms should be taken together because of their similar language and themes - the division is artificial) we find the questions. It is the lament of someone who is cut off from the Temple. Why? Exile? Illness? Who can say? No matter. The message is the same: "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?" The poet's "thirst for God" is more than simply a desire because, as we well know, we do not live without water. For the psalmist, God is a necessity of life. But, at the moment, communion with God is unavailable.
Ever felt that way? Most of us have. The grief is exacerbated by the taunts of "Where is your God?" which, in the psalm comes from external sources, but in our lives is a question that may well have passed from our own lips. In the midst of death, disaster, pain, misery, despair, where are you, God?
What makes the moment all the more painful for the psalmist is the memory of days when the opposite was true. He recalls a time when he was not alone, but was part of a crowd on its way to experience God's intimate nearness in the Jerusalem temple. "These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng." This is not the memory of a sleepy Sunday morning appearance at 8:30 or 10:00; this is the ecstatic day you were presented to the congregation following confirmation classes, the day your child was baptized, the snowy Christmas Eve communion that warmed you to your depths, that Easter morning when the truth of the resurrection became so real to you that reunion with a lost husband or wife or mother or father was almost close enough to reach out and touch. The psalmist recalls times when his sense of the divine presence was so immediate and full that he felt as if he were beholding nothing less than the face of God.
But that was then, this is now. Now all that he hears is the sound of his own pain - "Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? My bones suffer mortal agony..." And there are those relentless taunts again: "Where is your God?"
But then, from the depths of the tortured psyche, something wells up, and the rhetorical question, "Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?" is answered: "Put your hope in God; for I will yet praise him, my savior and my God." Three times in these few verses, not only is the question repeated, so is the answer. Despair and hope coexist. They did in Jesus - we heard it in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will."(2) The message is simple enough: even though the day's news may be depressing, at the end of the day, what gets us beyond despair is the fact that the day's news is not the end of the story. It was not for Jesus; it is not for you and me.
The gospel lesson is the story of the healing of the Gerasene Demoniac who is presented as being somewhat less than human: wearing no clothes, living in the tombs, driven into the wilderness. But, at the end of the story, he is human again: wearing clothes, in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus, returning to his home. As one commentator reflects:
In our day, we have become far more accustomed to attributing calamities and disorders to the forces of nature or to internal mental or emotional problems. The remedy is not exorcism but counseling or medication. The story of the Gerasene demoniac should now be interpreted so that it speaks a word of assurance and hope to those for whom every day is a battle with depression, fear, anxiety, or compulsive behavior. They will understand what would lead a person to say that his name is 'mob.'"(3)"Put your hope in God." Last week Jim Wallis, the founder of the Sojourners, that wonderful advocacy voice for Christian social action, delivered the baccalaureate address at Stanford University.(4) He told the graduates,
"When I was growing up, it was continually repeated in my evangelical Christian world that the greatest battle and biggest choice of our time was between belief and secularism. But I now believe that the real battle, the big struggle of our times, is the fundamental choice between cynicism and hope. The choice between cynicism and hope is ultimately a spiritual choice, and one that has enormous political consequences...
"Hope is not a feeling; it is a decision. And the decision for hope is based upon what you believe at the deepest levels - what your most basic convictions are about the world and what the future holds - all based upon your faith. You choose hope, not as a naive wish, but as a choice, with your eyes wide open to the reality of the world...
"And the realities of our world are these: almost half the world, close to three billion people, live on less than $2 a day, and more than one billion live on less than $1 a day. And every day, 30,000 children die due to utterly preventable causes such as hunger, disease, and things like the lack of safe drinking water - things we could change if we ever decided to.
"For the first time in history we have the information, knowledge, technology, and resources to bring the worst of global poverty virtually to an end. What we don't have is the moral and political will to do so. And it is becoming clear that it will take a new moral energy to create that political will."
Wallis goes on to say that this is a challenge the new graduates will have to face. Do not lose hope. Take the bull by the horns "connecting your best talents and skills to your best and deepest values, making sure your mind is in sync with your soul as you plot your next steps. Don't just go where you're directed or even invited, but rather where your own moral compass leads you. And don't accept others' notions of what is possible or realistic. Dare to dream things and don't be afraid to take risks...The antidote to cynicism is not optimism but action. And action is finally born out of hope. Try to remember that."
"Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God..." By the way, Jim Wallis began his address by recounting another speaking engagement, this one not at a university, but rather at Sing Sing. The invitation letter had come from the prisoners themselves and it sounded like a good idea, so he wrote back asking when they wanted him to come. In his return letter, the young Sing Sing resident replied, "Well, we're free most nights! We're kind of a captive audience here."
So, arrangements were made - just Jim and about 80 guys for four hours. He recalled one of those young prisoners saying to him that night, "Jim, all of us at Sing Sing are from only about five neighborhoods in New York City. It's like a train. You get on the train when you are about 9 or 10 years old. And the train ends up here at Sing Sing." Many of these prisoners were students too, studying in a unique program of the New York Theological Seminary to obtain their Master of Divinity degree - behind the walls of the prison. They graduated when their sentences were up. Here's what that young man at Sing Sing told Jim Wallis he would do upon his graduation: "When I get out, I'm going to go back and stop that train."
Good for him. When the psalmist's question rises within him (and behind bars you KNOW that it does from time to time) - "Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?" - his response is "Put your hope in God" because he knows that there is more to this story.
In a recent journal for preachers, Frederick Buechner has written, "If preachers decide to preach about hope, let them preach out of what they themselves hope for. They hope that the words of their sermons may bring some measure of understanding and wholeness to the hearts of the people who hear them and to their own hearts. They hope that the public prayers they pray may be heard and answered, and they hope the same for the private prayers of their congregations. They hope that the somewhat moth-eaten hymns, the somewhat less than munificent offerings, the somewhat self-conscious exchange of the peace may all be somehow acceptable in the sight of the One in whose name they are offered. They hope that the sacrament of bread and wine may be more than just a perfunctory exercise. They hope that all those who come to church faithfully week after week may find at least as much to feed their spirits there as they would find staying at home with a good book or getting out into the fresh air for some exercise. At the heart of all their hoping is the hope that God whom all the shouting is about really exists.(5)
Well, I DO hope all that. But what I draw on is more than "hope" - it is something I know down in the depths of my being. No matter how "downcast" or "disturbed" my soul ever gets - and it does, for all of us - I know there is more to the story, and that makes all the difference.
Horatio G. Spafford is a name with which you are probably not familiar. Mr. Spafford was a successful Chicago lawyer who lost most of his wealth in the financial crisis of 1873. He sent his wife and four daughters on a trip to France, but on their way, their ship was struck by another, and sank. Of 225 passengers, only 87 of them survived. Mrs. Spafford was among the survivors, but the four daughters perished. As soon as she reached land, she telegraphed to her husband: "Saved alone. Children lost. What shall I do?"
Spafford left for France to join his wife and return her to Chicago. In the depth of this bereavement, he wrote something that keeps his name alive, a hymn (his one and only):
When sorrow like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot,
Thou hast taught me to say,
"It is well, it is well with my soul."(6)
"Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?" Move beyond despair. "Put your hope in God..."
1. Kyle D. Pruett, M.D., Fatherneed (New York: The Free Press, 2000), p. 6
2. Matthew 26:39
3. Alan Culpepper, "The Gospel of Luke," New Interpreter's Bible, CD edition, (Nashville : Abingdon, 2002)
4. http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=news.display_archives&mode=current_ opinion&article=CO_040616_wallis
5. "Preaching on Hope," The Living Pulpit, http://www.pulpit.org/articles/preaching_on_hope.asp
6. Plus Magazine, Vol. 45:6, July/August, 1994, pp. 33-34