Hope from the Bowels of Forsakenness

Vulnerable. Weak. Lonely. Frightened. Anxious. Forlorn. Forsaken.

The hospitalized teenager suffering a sudden, undiagnosed illness of the bowels, wondering whether he’s dying, fearful there is no cure, came to my attention during the day. The consciousness of it remain through the night. Awakening in the morning, I look for something that will speak to the helpless feeling of his parents and grandparents.

Opening the Psalter, the opening verse of Psalm 22 leaps from the page — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — the tortured cry from the cross Jesus quoted many centuries after Psalm 22 had embedded itself in the collective consciousness of the Jewish people.

That the Newer Testament Gospels would put these words on Jesus’s lips is, it strikes me this morning, a Jewish code to look deeper for something much more complex, both tragically realistic and surprisingly hopeful in the psalm’s entirety. Though the forsakenness cry repeats itself immediately — “Why are You so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning?” — Psalm 22 goes on to recall poetically the existential-spiritual history of Israel’s suffering at the hands of the nations and its deliverance from the same, ending with “They (i.e., our descendants) shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that He has done.”

Jesus’s cry from the cross strikes me as the kind of cry we might read or hear in the writings of Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel – honest yet faithful to the Jewish tradition because the tradition itself expresses the horror of god-forsakenness and faith in the absent God at the same time.

Jesus on the cross has this history in his bowels and his bones. The teenager in the hospital has no active faith community, no wisdom tradition or practice, except for the faith and prayers of his grandparents whose faith has been kept at a distance for many years.

The week before learning of the teenager’s plight I had been filled with questions about another young man: the 26 year-old who gunned down the nine students in Oregon who suffered a nano-second of god-forsakenness in the classrooms where they had presumed to be safe from death at the community college that became their execution chamber. The grizzly scene of the shooter asking people about their faith, telling those who rose that they were about to meet their Maker, chilled me to the bone, raising the question of what the shooter’s experience of Christians had been that would so fill him with anger at them and their religion. Was he one of the many in America who, for reasons explainable or inexplicable, feel forsaken and despised? Alone. Isolated. Scorned. Forlorn. Angry.

To be human is to be intrinsically vulnerable. We are all at risk; all headed inevitably toward death. We are not immortal, eternal, timeless, invulnerable. Was the young man turned executioner mocking his death row victim’s belief in an afterlife? Was he saying loudly that there is nothing on the other side of death – a message to the world that this is all there is and that religion is a cruel hoax?

Death is our common lot, but the irony is that it does not wait until the end; it takes hold of us in the middle – between birth and death – as much as at the end. The foreshadowing of it sends us running for cover, running for relief, for an escape. It appears under the guises of control, power, invulnerability. Sometimes its disguise is a pistol or an assault rifle. Other times its disguise is religion that entertains illusions of immortality, belief systems that include and exclude, like “are you a Christian?”

This morning I’m freshly struck by the entire Psalm whose first line has echoed through the centuries every Good Friday: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?” —“My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”. I’m wishing our bowels could hear it, feel it, digest it, weep it, and find the hope and trust that smiles the conviction that the forsakenness we feel is not the final word.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN October 8, 2015

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