Brigette Jensen (not her real name) of Elk River, Minnesota has stories to tell about the first day of school. She’s a school bus driver for kindergarten and first-grade kids. She remembers picking up 5-year-old Jolene Johansson on her first day of kindergarten. As Jensen drives down a dirt lane in the country, she sees a small family new to the area, recently moved from Dallas, Texas. There are three of them: mom, an infant in a stroller and young Jolene. Jensen remembers this because the mom had left the house to meet the school bus in a house robe … and high heels.
But there’s a problem. Jolene and her mom appear to be Velcroed to each other. There are a lot of frantic hugs and wet kisses. And then there’s the noise: crying, of course, but also loud and sudden outbursts, followed by silence and whimpering. Then, new swells of rebellion and bitterness, and each wave is larger than the one before it. Finally, the tide appears to be coming in. Jensen knows. She’s waiting. She’s seen it all before.
But enough about the mom. Let’s talk about young Jolene.
Jensen can see the child is quite willing to get on the bus. For her first day, the child is dressed in a cute pink pair of dungaree shorts with brass clasps, a white top with sparkles, and her thick and curly hair is gathered by a Boho print hair scrunchie. She is carrying an Elsa and Anna “Frozen” backpack that is just about as big as she is. She is ready.
But mom isn’t.
Mom is on her knees. Her face is wet with tears and lined with worry. Her eyes are puffy and pleading. Jensen helps Jolene up the first step onto the bus and tells her to find a seat. Jensen then turns to mom and hands her a business card of a local family therapist, and says, “Jolene’s going to be fine.”
Jensen drives off in her yellow bus, Jolene safely buckled in, and glances at her side mirror. She sees mom standing in the roadway with her hands to her mouth.
Separation anxiety is not so much loneliness as it is the fear of alone-liness. Jolene’s extraordinary maturity notwithstanding, many infants and young children have bouts of anxiety when, for example, the first babysitter arrives and the parents leave.
So, it might seem odd to read verses 1 and 2 of today’s well-known psalm reading, which were written by an adult:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.” (Psalm 22, 1-2)
It’s like: “My God, my God, I cannot believe this!” These words seem very much like the cry of a toddler who has been wrested from their parent’s arms. This is not the cry of a lonely person, but an abandoned one. Loneliness can be many things, but it is most certainly the awareness of an absent, but real, support system. A lonely person knows that their friends and family – or whomever constitutes their emotional safety net – may not be physically with them, but they do exist somewhere and that sometime in the future they are likely to see them again.
But alone-liness is an unwelcome solitude imposed (one believes) by a force or agency outside or beyond one’s control, as in the case of Jolene’s mother (an aloneness imposed by school).
This is what the writer of Psalm 22 is feeling at a very deep, gut-wrenching level. Even more shocking is that in the gospels, Jesus, in agony on the cross, cites the first verse of Psalm 22 whilst writhing in pain: “‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34).
Not only is Jesus of Nazareth alone in the world, but He’s been abducted by authorities, deserted by feckless friends and has spikes through His wrists and feet. His head is crowned with a wreath of thorns, causing blood to trickle down over his face. His pain level is 12 on a scale of 1-10, and He’s close to suffocation.
More horrifying is that the one who put Him in this situation or allowed it to happen is His own Father! “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why have you abandoned me? You! Of all those I might have suspected of desertion, I never thought that you would leave me hanging!”
It’s a situation similar to the parent who, in a fit of anger, incarcerates their child in a closet. Can you imagine the anxiety, even terror, of such a situation for a child? “Mom! Mom! Why are you doing this? Where are you? Let me out! Let me out!” If the mother has always – typically – been kind, empathetic, loving and understanding, then there’s an enormous disconnect for this child. The child – now in a dark, confining closet – is unbelieving. It’s like, “Who are you and what have you done to my mother?!”
This shock or surprise is why we see in Psalm 22:1 and in Jesus’ deeply theological question from the cross the shadow of implicit atheism. Suffering is bad enough, but when one suffers alone, it’s worse. And when one suffers in the apparent absence of a God to deliver us, and when (as in the case of the ancient patriarch Job) that same God appears to be the one who inflicted the suffering, then one really feels defeated. One then either gives up – it was all an illusion, or worse, a delusion – or hedges their bets. Jesus did both. Shortly before dying, He said, “‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). But He also said, “crying with a loud voice … ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46). Obviously, none of the four gospel writers agree as to which of Jesus’ words were His last.
It is very difficult to remain a theist in the face of horrifying adversity, especially when the terror is inflicted by the very God whose existence you have stoutly defended.
There are exceptions, of course. Abraham was told by Yahweh to position his son on an altar, tie him steadfast and slaughter him then and there as a sacrificial lamb. Then God stopped him at the last minute, and a ram was found whose death would do just as well as an only son.
Consider the Old Testament reading for today. Here, the old patriarch Job is not in danger of losing his faith, even though in this reading, he cannot seem to locate God: “Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments” (Job 23:3-4). Though losing everything, like Abraham, Job refuses to lose his faith. He argues with God, to be sure. His friends ridicule him, as does his wife. And, of course, his wife and friends are completely spot on, dead right: Believing that God exists in these circumstances is irrational. But Job, when the dust settles, announces quite firmly: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25).
But C.S. Lewis is closer to Jesus in agony on the cross than Abraham or Job. In his little book, A Grief Observed, written after the death of his wife Joy, he writes, “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”
Perhaps we cannot know if the fully human Jesus (as opposed to a mystery Jesus) died thinking it was all a farce, or if He died believing that this is what His Father was really like … God will let you suffer and die.
Whatever we may speculate about what the psalmist was experiencing in Psalm 22, or what Jesus was thinking when He died on the cross, we know that Good Friday is not the end of the story. God did not abandon Jesus, to which the empty tomb of Easter morning testifies.
It’s quite possible that during the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us – unable to attend in-person services or connect to human support systems – have felt precisely as does the writer in today’s psalm reading. A survey of more than 2,000 Americans conducted by The Harris Poll showed that almost 72 percent of Americans experience loneliness. “And for many,” the study says, “it’s not just a once-in-a-while occurrence – one-third said they are lonely at least once a week.” This poll occurred before the pandemic. Had 2,000 people been surveyed anytime in 2020, the percentage would surely have been higher.
So, what do we do when we are assailed by doubts and feel forsaken by God?
This question has been asked and answered many times, perhaps countless, in the millennia before and after the death of Jesus. It most certainly has been asked, but perhaps not answered, as the world stumbles through the Covid-19 pandemic.
One approach to the question is to adapt a rubric used by parents of young children (and possibly Jolene’s mother): the “CRY” coping strategy.
C stands for contemplative. At this point, we are cognitively aware that we’re in emotional and spiritual trouble. We are now able to ask the question, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We might count our blessings or adversities. Sometimes they pile up. The psalmist said in verse 17 of today’s readings: “I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me.”
Then we might complain:
“O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest” (v. 2).
“I am … scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads” (vv. 6-7).
“Trouble is near and there is no one to help” (v. 11).
“All my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death” (vv. 14-15).
We also might consider a total cleanse — whether food-related (riding oneself of toxins), a digital cleanse (reducing online and social media interactions), or a spiritual cleanse (reestablishing religious rituals like prayer, Bible study, reading, etc.).
In any case, when feeling as though we’re in a God-forsaken wilderness, the first thing to do as a person of faith is to get our bearings. Stop and have a good think: contemplate, count, complain and cleanse.
R stands for relax. You relax after the contemplative phase has been completed. You rest. You know that there’s not much more to do if you’re sitting in a dark closet and the Parent won’t let you out. Yes, your friends might be horrified by your image of God tossing you into a closet for a while, but they know about you or about God about as much as Job’s friends knew about him and God. They were wrong. So now, you relax. Like Job, you’ve had your say with God. You have “laid your case before him,” and you have “filled [your] mouth with arguments” (Job 23:4). But now you are ready to “learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me” (v. 5). You might now just rest and see what God has to say when he whispers through the closet door.
Of course, it might not be pleasant. God might get in your face, as God did with Job, and say, “Okay, Job, put on your big-boy pants and tell me this:
‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements – surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?’” (Job 38:4-7).
So, you’ve had it out with God. You let it rest. God’s got this.
Or, like the disciples of Jesus who must have felt utterly abandoned, you are resourceful. You go fishing. No better way to relax for many. Or, you seek restoration: you go back to work. The disciples return to Galilee and get their old jobs back at “Zebedee & Sons.” They’re back to work. They had their fun. Turned out to be a pipe dream, but for a while, it was amazing. Now, back to the real world.
Y stands for yes. This stage emphasizes the importance of saying “Yes” in your return to faith. It is not merely “acceptance” of the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross variety. It is, at first, a small “yes” in the presence of the huge “No!” you see about you. It is belief overcoming unbelief. It is “yes” to God, because it is only God who can pull you from the pit, the closet or the despair.
You may not emerge into the light of your “yes” unscathed. Even Jacob had a limp for the rest of his life when he wrestled with his unknown but divine opponent. But God can do something with that limp. Henri Nouwen alludes to this when he writes: “Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually. The main question is not, ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”
This is precisely what is going on in Jesus’ interaction with Peter after breakfast on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Peter, wounded by doubt, fear and denials, now hears Jesus say to him, “Feed my sheep.”
You are now ready to say “Yes” to Jesus, because when you look at the nail prints in His hands as did the disciple Thomas, you realize that Jesus has experienced everything you have, and so like Thomas, you say, “My Lord and my God.”
At the beginning of your ordeal, you began by saying, “My God, my God, I can’t believe this!”
At the end, you say, “My Lord and God, I believe!” Amen.