Faithfulness in Scenes of Complete Abandonment

It was already after Sunday worship before I heard word of the mass shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, TX. On Tuesday, at a Bible study, we talked about wounds that may not be healed in this life, perhaps like wounds in that ravaged community. This morning I listened to the latest episode of the Replacing Church Podcast, “#81 Soong-Chan Rah on the Prophetic Act of Lament,” in which he speaks about the need for prophetic lament in our worship. This afternoon, I continued reading in Walter Brueggeman’s seminal The Message of the Psalms, and he arrived at one of the most difficult psalms, the lament that goes down and down and down, but never comes back up: Psalm 88.

Here is almost every word he wrote about it in this book:

Psalm 88 is an embarrassment to conventional faith. It is the cry of a believer (who sounds like Job) whose life has gone awry, who desperately seeks contact with Yahweh, but who is unable to evoke a response from God. This is indeed “the dark night of the soul,” when the troubled person must be and must stay in the darkness of abandonment, utterly alone.

1. The psalm opens with an urgent appeal to Yahweh (vv. 1-2). The initial address is one of intimacy, already suggesting what is needed and expected. The verses are dominated by this desperate speech: “I cry…my prayer…my cry.” The appeal is reiterated in verse 9b, “I call upon thee…I spread out my hands.” And again in verse 13: “I…cry to thee…my prayer comes before thee.” This three fold cry (vv.1-2, 9b, 13) forms the structure of the psalm. Characteristically when Israel cries, Yahweh hears and answers (cf. Exod. 2:23-35; Ps. 107:6, 13, 19, 28). Indeed it is anticipated that a time will come when the answer will precede the cry (Isa. 65:24). But not yet, not here. Psalm 88 is adamant in its insistence, and it is harsh on Yahweh’s unresponsiveness. The truth of this psalm is that Israel lives in a world where there is no answer. We are not offered any speculative answer. Perhaps God is silent because the guilt of the speaker has driven Yahweh away, but we are not told that. Or one might take it to be a statement of God’s transcendent freedom, so that God is not always on call (cf. Jer. 23:23). But that is not suggested either. The psalm is not interested in any theological reason Yahweh may have. The psalm is from Israel’s side. It engages in no speculation. It asks no theological question. It simply reports on how it is to be a partner of Yahweh in Yahweh’s inexplicable absence. We may imagine that the situation is so desperate that even if a reason could be offered, the speaker would have no interest in it, nor would it help, because the needfulness of the moment supersedes any reasonable conversation.

2. The unanswered plea does not silence the speaker. Perhaps the speaker is in fact speaking to the empty sky, but that does not deter the speaker. The faith of Israel is like that. The failure of God to respond does not lead to atheism or doubt in God or rejection of God. It leads to more intense address. This psalm, like the faith of Israel, is utterly contained in the notion that Yahweh is there and must be addressed. Yahweh must be addressed, even if Yahweh never answers.

In verses 3-9a, the speaker addresses a barrage at Yahweh. The speaker is not very cunning or calculating. The speech is not deliberately presented in order to evoke an answer. There is no playing up to God. There is only anger. If one wanted to tease or persuade Yahweh to answer, this is not the way to go about it, but this speaker has no leisure for such niceties. Yahweh should not need persuasion, for he is expected to answer.

Verses 3-4 are a standard complaint with reference to “the Pit” and to “Sheol.” This is the voice of a dying one crying out to the only source of life. “The Pit” is not final judgment or fiery place of punishment. It is only beyond the range of communion. For this speaker, communion with God is clearly everything. The notion of “cutting off” is expressed in verse 5 with three metaphors and a fourth climactic line: “dead…grave…remember no more…cut off.”

But then in verses 6-9a, the stakes are upped. This is an incredibly audacious speaker. Not only does death come, but Yahweh causes it:

Thou has put me…
Thy wrath lies heavy…
Thou dost overwhelm…
Thou hast caused…
Thou has made me…

The speaker is utterly helpless. The fault is firmly fixed. In Job-like fashion, the speaker may hope that such an assault will evoke a response. But it does not—only more silence.

3. After the second cry in verse 9b, verses 10-12 offer a series of six rhetorical questions, or at least four questions, two of which have two parts. But the dramatic effect is six questions. All of them ask about Yahweh’s capacity to work his sovereign way in death. We have “dead/shades/grave/abandon/darkness/land of forgetfulness.” That is the situation into which the speaker has fallen. The speaker will surely fall further if Yahweh does not act soon. And we are given six corresponding words that characterize Yahweh’s usual action: “wonders…praise…steadfast love…faithfulness…wonders…saving help.”

The pattern of two sets of words shows the incongruity between where the speaker is and what Yahweh does. The obvious response to the rhetorical question is “no.” Yahweh does not do his typical action in death, so, if it is to make any difference, what Yahweh does will have to be done prior to death (which is very near). The urgency of the speech is that at this moment Yahweh can still do his life-giving work, but not for long. If Yahweh does not act soon, the chance will be lost, preempted by the power of death. The speaker will be utterly lost, because the power of Yahweh has failed. But this is still no answer—only waiting. We may imagine a long dramatic, not very patient pause after verse 12. But there is no answer, and so the cry is resumed.

4. The final assault in verses 14-18 comes after the third appeal of verse 13. Now the poet moves to direct, unambiguous accusation. In verse 14, two questions place the blame frontally. Verse 15 describes the situation one more time, in case Yahweh did not hear it in verses 3-8, 10-12. And then the poem culminates in its harshest statement: “thy wrath has swept…thy dread assaults…thou hast caused.”

Finally, the speaker is shunned and in darkness. The last word in the psalm is darkness. The last word is darkness. The last theological word here is darkness. Nothing works. Nothing is changed. Nothing is resolved. All things deny life. And worst of all is the “shunning.” It is twice articulated…so that the blame is fixed on Yahweh.

So what is one to do about that? Wait. That is what Israel has been doing for a very long time. I suspect that practically and dramatically, what one must do is say it over again, until the speech and the speaker have genuinely reached the bottom. One has two options: either to wait in silence, or to speak it again. What one may not do is to rush to an easier psalm, or to give up on Yahweh.

What is a psalm like that doing in our Bible? Two things suggest themselves. First, life is like that, and these poems intend to speak of all of life, not just the good parts. Here, more than anywhere else, faith faces life as it is. Second, we observe that this psalm is not a psalm of mute depression. It is still speech. It is still addressed. In the bottom of the Pit, Israel still knows it has to do with Yahweh. It cannot be otherwise. Yahweh may not have to do with Israel. That is a problem for Yahweh, not for Israel or Israel’s theologians. Israel has no option but to deal with Yahweh. That belongs to Israel’s identity and character in the world. Israel must deal with Yahweh in his life-giving speech and answer. But Israel must also deal with Yahweh in the silence, in God’s blank absence as in the saving presence. Israel has no choice but to speak to this one, or to cease to be Israel. To be Israel means to address God, even in God’s unresponsive absence.

This psalm accords well with Luther’s theology of the cross. It certainly militates against every theology of glory, against every theology that imagines that things can be resolved, that there are answers, and that we go from “strength to strength.” Psalm 88 shows us what the cross is about: faithfulness in scenes of complete abandonment

One might wish the assertion were from on high. Then it would be less tenuous.  But when that voice from on high is silent, Israel must decide if a feeble line can be established from this side. We never know. The speaker does not know. But it is speech against the darkness. It is not cowed, but insistent, determined that if the Holy One chooses to answer, that answer must not be weak or trivial. When God next speaks, God must answer this charge. No doubt that is why God is not yet prepared to answer by the end of this psalm.

Psalm 88 stands as a mark of realism for biblical faith. It has its pastoral use, because there are situations in which easy, cheap talk of resolution must be avoided. Here are words not to be used frequently, but for the limited experiences when words must be honest and not claim too much.

Jesus Lament

Psalm 88

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How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

My first contact with the work of Paul Tough was in this This American Life episode, in which he reported on the awe-inspiring work of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. Tough’s book on the same subject, Whatever It Takes, was published, praised, and widely discussed in 2008. In How Children Succeed, from 2012, Tough looks at the same concerns of the US and its dire need for education reform, but with a nationwide lens.

As the subtitle hints, in this book Tough is concerned with bringing to education the cluster of soft skills, character traits, and virtues that have been emphasized by the positive psychology movement (and which have spun off several bestsellers from 1991’s Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman to 2016’s Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success by Angela Duckworth). Tough argues–with plenty of test scores, statistics, and moving anecdotes to prove it–that character strengths and weaknesses have much more to do with student success and lifelong achievement than do IQ tests.

I love much of the foundation of the positive psychology movement, so named because of its desire to study and encourage mental wellness after more than a century of psychology’s (neurotic?) focus on mental illness. If that interests you, and especially if you are also fascinated by DISC, StrengthFinders, Myers-Briggs, et al, you should spend some time taking a few of these free tests connected to ongoing research at the University of Pennsylvania.

How Children Succeed is well-written and well-argued, for the most part. It’s inspiring to hear stories of children who seemingly should fail on paper, but who have taken flight in their educational and then professional and personal lives. It’s encouraging to learn about educators, thinkers, schools, and movements who are willing to reinvent themselves when initial hypotheses and reform attempts fail. I’m especially interested because it at least intends to create research-based interventions.

Where How Children Succeed falls short is its lack of intellectual modesty. Rather than adding the insights of positive psychology to other quality streams of thought in education reform, Tough presents “the hidden power of character” as a cure-all: IQ is out, and grit is in. And grit will fix all our problems, not only in schools but in adult happiness and life satisfaction.

Because Tough is so enthralled with the work of positive psychology researchers, he doesn’t seem to notice that he is replacing one overly simplistic answer to a complex problem with another overly simplistic answer. There is a star-struck quality to the arguments, and because of this partial blindness, there is little deep grappling in this book with the power of class, race, geography, or historical intertia. There is next-to-nothing in this book about teacher recruitment and retention (and instead an appalling number of references to the merits of Teach for America). And while it seems that this book would be incredibly timely in a year when everyone on social media seemed to have an opinion on education policy during Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearings, it just isn’t. It makes literally zero public policy arguments with the power to serve more than a tiny percentage of the US’ public school student population. (In its defense, the narrow focus of the book could serve as a useful partial foundation for public policy proposals.)

For all that critique, it’s not a bad book. It just needs to be one ingredient in a gumbo, not the single-ingredient meal it sets out to be. I’d recommend it without hesitation to educators, because educators have the context of wider reading, training, and experience in education policy, theory, and practice. I have no doubt that the best educators and best teacher training programs are already using many of these insights. But for readers like me, people who simply want to be informed about important trends in education and public policy, it has serious flaws. Read it if you read a lot of education books or if you’re already interested in positive psychology and you want to think through further practical applications. Just don’t read it expecting it to be the one education book to finally tell you “How Children Succeed.”

The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection by Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams numbers not only among the most influential theologians in the world, but among the top living minds, period. His career is both impressive and praiseworthy—dedication over the course of his career to both local church ministry and the Christian academy, faithful leadership at the top of the Anglican Communion through its recent global rupture, and no hesitation to use his weight as a public theologian and political figure in the UK and beyond.

Williams also keeps writing lovely little books for the church, like The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and the Resurrection.

Rowan Williams Sign and the Sacrifice

This book is divided neatly in two. Part 1: The Meaning of the Cross is subdivided into “The sign,” “The sacrifice,” and “The victory.” Part 2: The Meaning of the Resurrection is split into “Christ’s resurrection—then” and “Christ resurrection—now.” Along the way Williams presents, analyzes, and invites us to contemplate just as wide of a swath through Christian history, theology, and practice as the book’s subtitle and organization suggest. Deep dives into Scripture and theology accompany references to literature as well as—in what turns out to be most distinctive in this book—the hymnody and prayers of the church.

The annoyance I have with this book is that points of theological argument and conversations in Biblical criticism are frustratingly lacking in footnotes. The bigger qualm I have is that in the second part of the book, I want Williams to unequivocally state, “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” and he never does. There are certainly statements that can be read that way, particularly a conversation on how Jewish conceptions of resurrection at the time of Jesus could not imagine a resurrection apart from this earth. In Part 2 as a whole, however, I find Williams to be equivocating on what the nature of Jesus’ resurrection is, and thus the nature of what our resurrection will be, although he certainly believes that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that it was the defining act of the new creation.

In terms of best audience and application, the book is successfully aimed at normal church folks. It is intellectually serious, but it isn’t unapproachable, and it even has helpful conversation questions at the end of each chapter. For me personally, I can think of several people to recommend it to, especially fellow pastors. It would be a tremendous book to plan a sermon series around, especially during Lent.

I’ll end with a longer quote to draw you in to take a chance on this excellent book:

Jesus’ death is not a ritual sacrifice. It doesn’t happen in a temple, it happens on a bleak hilltop on an execution ground. Jesus’ sacrifice is the sacrifice of obedience. At every moment of his life he has given his heart to God in such a way that God is able to work through him with no interruption, with no diversion. At every moment Jesus has fulfilled the law; not by ticking off at the end of every day a series of acts performed; not by obeying God like a reluctant corporal with a sergeant major ordering him around; but at every moment Jesus has done what God wants. So even before his crucifixion we could say in Jewish terms that he was offering a sacrifice, giving his heart to God in such a way that God is pleased with his gift.

But as with those martyrs in the period between the Testaments, it was an obedience that led to death. Jesus’ single-minded gift of his heart to the Father leads him to the shedding of his blood, because obedience to God in this world of sin, oppression and violence puts you lethally at risk. This is a world in which if you try to give your heart to God you may find your blood shed.

God’s Filing Cabinet

The X-Files

When I was growing up, I was taught to understand the daily Christian life as “walking by the Spirit” (cf. Gal. 5:16).  What that meant until perhaps ten years ago (and still means at times of high stress and low coping) was that there was some exactly right plan in God’s head, and I was anxiously trying not to fail it.

Things which aren’t psychologically healthy are never spiritually healthy.

They’re not theologically accurate either: that vision of God and God’s plan had nothing to do with Jesus or the Spirit of Jesus Christ (as the Holy Spirit is repeatedly named in Scripture).

Thomas Merton puts this all so well (from “Renunciation and Contemplation,” quoted in Fr. Albert Haase, Swimming in the Sun, pp. 123-124):

“Your vocation isn’t something that’s in a filing cabinet in Heaven that is kept secret from you and then sort of whipped out at the Last Judgment and [God says], ‘You missed, buddy! You didn’t guess right.’ But your vocation, or anything in life, is an invitation on the part of God which you’re not supposed to guess and you’re not supposed to figure out. It’s something you work out by free response.”

I still think “walk by the Spirit” is a decent, short description of the daily Christian life. But now I want to offer a bigger picture: “walk by the Spirit” when the Spirit is experienced through the whole Biblical canon; in community with other Christians, living and dead (the Tradition); via the Sacraments; and in lived experience, both my personal experience and in connection with the larger human experience.

Joyfully.

Not a Psalm of Asaph

Psalm LXXXII
And there was December and there was January,
A new year.

And in this new year, I will
I will, I will, I will, I will, I will
I will–

But what will I be?

I will be more beautiful
Than the angels,
Although with regard to me
The answer is zero
Can dance on the head of a pin.

But what shall I be
And what shall be and
What shall be
And what shall I be?

God has said, “You are gods,”
And God meant it.

16 in 2016: Best Books in the Year

Best Books of the Year lists make sense for trade awards, but people don’t read that way. Here are the best books–roughly the top 10%–I read in 2016. You can look at my full 2016 reading list on Goodreads. Friend me while you’re over there.

Flight by Sherman Alexie
I would feel better about the world if everyone would read this book. It’s painful and uplifting, with prose of a quality that shows there is no upper ceiling to YA writing.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A black father writes an elegant, long-lasting memoir as a letter to his son in the present-day United States. If you can swing it, buy the audiobook to hear it straight from the author’s mouth to his child.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
If you’re interested in Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, or Walker Percy, read this four-character biography. If you’re interested in just how well history and biography can be written, read this book.

The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones
Jones is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. This is a brilliant book on history, politics, sociology, and American Christianity in our present moment. It might be the best book published in 2016 that I read in 2016.

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Lethem has been in the back of my mind as someone to read for a long time. This story is sci-fi-warped reality, populated by well-drawn characters, written with great prose and humor. I’ll be reading more Lethem in 2017.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
This is the book I have most widely recommended this year. I can’t speak to other “unclutter your life” books, but this one is directed at people who have too many good ideas to pursue them all, or who have too many claimants on their time to please them all. That’s just about everybody.

Journals of Thomas Merton
Although I’m a long-term Merton junkie, the collected journals are not mere arcana for Merton scholars. Most of his published writings were first birthed in these pages. In 2016, I read Volumes 1, 2, and 3. We’ll see how many of the other four volumes I can manage in 2017. If you’ve read no Merton, first try The Seven Storey Mountain (his classic autobiography) or No Man Is An Island. If you’ve already liked some Merton, there’s no reason to wait to dig into the journals.

The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack
Is this a lasting great? Maybe not. But it’s still great. Buy it for the new graduate in your life. Buy it for a wedding present. It’s useful, excellent, and short.

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
A brother and sister are sent to some small town in central Illinois to stay with their off-the-wall grandma. I would have adored this as a kid. I still do.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
Several years ago, Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret invited me to create a new category of books in my brain: “Huggable.” There are some books so wonderful that they make you pause while literally hugging them for a slow inhale and exhale or three. And after a few moments you’re able to keep reading. With this book, Selznick created another one, following the same format of Cabret, with its alternating pages of texts and sketches. Here’s a picture of the main character traversing a scale model of New York City.

selznick-rose-on-the-pano

The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar
An Algerian rabbi’s cat eats a parrot and then is able to tell his master that he wants to be a Jew, drawn strikingly and originally, with great intelligence and humor. See?

Rabbi's Cat

Batman: Court of Owls by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo
Batman is a very hit-and-miss dynasty, the New 52 is even worse, and yet this story was born out of both, and it’s tremendous. Familiar characters, deep history/mythology, Batman as detective (the best kind of Batman?), and great suspense-building and storytelling, alongside great art.

Collected Poems, 1928-1985 by Stephen Spender
Spender was of the same generation of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. I was introduced to him via Thomas Merton’s journals. If you like Auden, you’ll likely be a fan of Spender too. But buy this newer edition, instead of the one I have.

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
If you only know the marvelous Disney version, then you owe it to yourself and any kids in your life to read these. They’re magic.

Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday
Whedon fans won’t be surprised that he’s good at writing literally anything, including this astonishing series from 2004 (that year between Firefly and Serenity).

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang, art by Thien Pham
I read Yang’s great Boxers & Saints and American-Born Chinese this year as well, but I list this because it’s the one I connected with the most emotionally.

Tuesday Reading Roundup

This past week I have been reading three wonderful books:

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter

This book had a slow start. First is the fact that it is two authors’ work, the former an oil-executive-turned-amateur-historian and the latter a self-described “professional co-author.” The bigger issue is the basic issue of reading about a group of men dedicated to protecting art in the midst of World War II: aren’t there enough important things which happened in that war that we never need to get to talking about art? Then there is the fact that there were never any “Monuments Men” there to protect anything but Western art.

I’m 65% of the way through, and there has yet to be a real discussion about what it says about human nature and its contradictions that a fabulously successful death cult also dedicated itself to collecting the greatest works of the human spirit. Certainly that’s above the pop-history pay grade, but as a pastor and small-time theologian, I’m endlessly amazed by our human capacity for self-deception, and this whole piece of history is fuel for further thought.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

This year I have an ambitious reading goal anchored by a narrower list of fewer than 40 books. That smaller list includes the complete novels of Toni Morrison (at least the ones I’ve not yet read) as well as a couple of her non-fiction collections. I’m currently wondering if this might be her best work, but it’s been years since I’ve read Beloved.

Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God by Lauren F. Winner

Although it will be difficult for Winner to ever outsell her Girl Meets God, she has become an unbelievably stronger writer since then. In my opinion, Still is the one that has a chance to enter into the classics categoryWearing God, the follow-up to that book, now confounds my expectations that she could never top it. Of course, I’m only thirty pages in. Fans of Madeleine L’Engle’s non-fiction and Barbara Brown Taylor’s more personal work will love this book, in which the title refers to the off-the-beaten-path Biblical images of God that Winner says we need to add to the familiar Shepherd, Father, King, etc. in our heads, hearts, and prayers.


Tuesday Reading Roundup has been a regular feature of this blog and its predecessor for several years. Entries must: 1) Have been read by me in the previous week; 2) Have been particularly interesting, thought- or conversation-provoking, and/or entertaining.