I want to share a story from my book, Forgiveness: The Road Home.
In July of 2006 we took a congregational group to the New Orleans area to staff “Camp Noah.” This is a therapeutic Bible School for children who have survived the trauma of a disaster. We spent a week with the children of Hurricane Katrina, and we were changed for a lifetime.
As staff members, we all had our favorites (and not-so-favorites) among the children we served. As one of the older males on the staff, I had a special role in exercising some discipline. Thus, I became acquainted with several unruly little boys.
One of them wore a small cross on a chain around his neck – a gift from one of the other counselors. It became precious to him as a sign, but a sign of what? He was uncertain. He knew the crucifixion story. Jesus died on that cross. However, when I asked him why Jesus died, the boy frowned in deep thought.
I waited for an answer which I could not predict. Then I asked again, “Why do you think Jesus died on that cross?” The little boy answered with half a question, “Maybe ‘cause he bad?”
A reasonable response from someone who had been victimized so often and so severely in the first five years of his life – blaming the victim was the only story he knew. It was clear that he hoped another story was possible.
Where does suffering fit with faith? It’s a question that hovers over the texts for the Second Sunday in Lent.
Psalm 22 begins with the words we know Jesus spoke from the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Today we find ourselves in the section of the psalm that has taken a turn from that despair in the general direction of hope.
Psalm 22, when taken as a whole, is a psalm of lament. The psalmist is suffering and surrounded. The writer’s physical condition is dire. The psalmist’s spiritual condition is even worse. Not only is the writer suffering, but the psalmist is certain that God has “forsaken” the writer. The Hebrew word has the sense of “abandoned” and can be used for when a husband “abandons” a wife, for example. Not only is God absent, but God is also silent in the face of the psalmist’s suffering.
In the past, the writer remembers, the ancestors relied on God and were delivered. But the psalmist assumes that she or he is not that important to God. In the face of that apparent abandonment, the writer is shamed for putting trust in an “unreliable” Lord.
The psalmist reminds God that they’ve had a relationship since the writer was born. Now that things are difficult, this is no time to take a holiday. There is trouble all around. The psalmist is melting with anxiety and dry-mouthed with fear. Adversaries and wild animals threaten the psalmist, and the collection agency has repossessed the writer’s property.
“But you, O Lord,” the psalmist pleads in verse 19, “do not be far away!” The writer addresses God directly and with great emphasis. Hey, you! Lord! Don’t go wandering off just when I need you the most! We who are trained to offer nice, safe, polite prayers could learn a few things from the direct demands and passionate pleas of the psalmist here. By “we,” of course, I really mean “I.”
Luther prayed like this. Tim Wengert describes Luther’s direct and sometimes demanding approach to prayer in Martin Luther’s Catechisms. He describes Luther’s prayers for Philip Melanchthon as Melanchthon lay in a semi-conscious fever in 1540.
Wengert quotes Luther’s own report of his prayers. “For I threw the entire sack in front of his door and rubbed his ears with the promissiones to hear prayers, that I was able to recall from the Holy Scripture, so that he had to hear me, were I to believe all those other promises” (Wengert, page 70).
Hey, God! Yes, you! Listen up! Here’s what you promised. Here’s how you have produced in the past. Why should I be any different from those other folks? Oh, source of my strength, get yourself over here on the double! I’m in deep…stuff…here! As Luther would say, the psalmist has thrown the entire sack at God’s front door and rubbed God’s ears for all they’re worth.
In half a verse, the psalm turns on a dime from lament to a hymn of praise! You have plucked me off the horns of the wild ox! You have “rescued” me. The Hebrew verb also has the sense of “answer,” which is appropriate to the context. After all the complaint in verse two is that God has not answered the cries of the suffering writer. The verb is the same.
Nancy deClaissé-Walford, in her workingpreacher.org commentary, notes that the center of this praise section of the psalm comes in verse 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.” We remember that the psalmist was despised by all the people (verse 6) and mocked by all who saw the writer (verse 7). But that is not God’s response to the psalmist’s suffering.
Affliction is not evidence of God’s abandonment. Suffering is not a sign of forsakenness. Distress does not point to damnation. The Lord does not look away in shame or disgust when we struggle to survive.
After my little cross-bearer in New Orleans gave his first halting answer, we launched into a kindergarten level discussion of atonement, solidarity, grace, and God’s love. At the end of that conversation, I was sure I had done nothing but bore the little boy into a much-needed nap.
After our talk he curled up in my lap under a blanket and was soon asleep. So much for my marvelous powers of theological discernment and description. I have induced Sunday snoring in parishioners in the same way for years.
Affliction may not be punishment after all. That is a profoundly counter-cultural word for our moment.
We still live in a culture of “official optimism.” We are sure that complaining is an admission of failure. Prosperity and suffering must be “deserved” in order to make sense in such a culture. Anger at suffering is regarded as disrespect for and ingratitude toward God (or whoever is in power) and gets punished.
It’s a culture where the meme, “The beatings will continue until morale improves,” makes humorous sense to people. “Quit yer bitchin’,” we’re told, “It could be worse.” Is it any wonder that my little guy in New Orleans answered the question the way he did?
Suffering, however, is not in every case punishment for bad behavior. It might be the consequence of some particularly good behavior. This is the connection I would make to the Gospel reading. Peter has his mind focused on “human things,” what Luther would label as the theology of glory. Suffering, crucifixion, and death – in that theology – are sure signs of God’s judgment and rejection. Therefore, such things simply could not happen to one who has been identified as the Lord’s Messiah. This is why Peter takes Jesus aside for a little tutorial in the ways of worldly glory.
The theology of the cross is a different matter, as Luther describes it. Suffering and death are not the opposite of victory but rather the path to the empty tomb. There is no going around the cross. It is “necessary.” Even the forsakenness so clearly enunciated in the first part of the psalm is, perhaps, in some sense “necessary” for the journey from Lent to Easter to happen.
I am struck by the fact that in the psalm the verbs are all, by and large, in the present tense. God is far away. Those who see me mock me. I am a worm and no human – scorned, despised, mocked, derided. I am encircled by bulls, melting like wax, cotton-mouthed with terror. At the same time, I am rescued. I declare that rescue in the midst of worship. I praise the Lord’s name and pay my vows.
The psalm is not a progression from one state into another. Suffering and saving, pain and praise, are wrapped up together. That is the theology of the cross. God’s power is hidden in weakness. God’s wisdom is wrapped foolishness. Reality is hidden under the form of its opposite. “What is good,” writes Douglas John Hall, “lies hidden underneath or behind this dreadful reality [of the cross: namely, God’s concealed presence and determination to mend creation from within” (Seminary Ridge Review, page 11).
To experience life in this way is to set our minds on Divine things rather than on human things.
Later, my little guy in New Orleans brought me back to our conversation. “I know why Jesus died on the cross,” he said with a sly and shy smile. “Really?” I replied. “I would like to hear what you think about that.”
The dark-eyed, brown-haired little angel stood up tall, took a breath, and delivered his theological thesis. “Jesus died because his heart was too broke to keep all God’s love inside.” Then my little theology professor went off to mold clay and frustrate the other teachers.
“Jesus died because hie heart was too broke to keep all God’s love inside.” I’ll take that.
References and Resources
Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2011.
Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.
Hall, Douglas John. “The Theology of the Cross: A Usable Past,” in Seminary Ridge Review, Spring 2006.
Hennigs, Lowell. Forgiveness: The Road Home. See the “Books for sale” section of lowellhennigs.com.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.