I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I frequently practice the Episcopal Daily Office for my daily prayers, which is an ancient pattern of regular Christian devotion that uses daily prayers to mark the times of the day, primarily morning and evening, and is based on the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. A key component of the the Daily Office is the lectionary. Wikipedia defines “lectionary” as follows:
…a book or listing that contains a collection of scripture readings appointed for Christian or Judaic worship on a given day or occasion.
In the Book of Common Prayer, the daily lectionary follows the liturgical calendar and includes daily readings from the Psalms, Old Testament, New Testament (e.g., Acts, epistles), and the Gospels. For example, today’s lectionary is as follows:
- Psalms 119:1-24 (morning prayer)
- Psalms 12, 13, and 14 (evening prayer)
- Job 6:1; 7:1-21
- Acts 10:1-16
- John 7:1-13
With that as a bit of background, I’d like to discuss this past Saturday’s lectionary, which I’ve thought about several times since reading it.
Frequently this life can be a crap sandwich which we have no alternative but to eat. Suffering, unhappiness, depression, pain, and despondency are all too often the companions of many of us. It is easy to look around at our neighbors or read the news and tally the pain and suffering associated with this mortal life, and Saturday’s lectionary seemed to both encapsulate that sad reality while at the same time depicting the hope that is in Christianity.
Saturday’s lectionary began with Psalm 137. I’ll quote verses 1-6 here:
By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Here is expressed the lament and hopelessness of Israel while languishing in the lands of Babylon. Jerusalem is lost. The hope of Zion is lost. They can’t even bring themselves to sing the beautiful songs of Zion so they have hung their harps upon the trees. These verses eloquently describe the sadness and pain of those who have lost their dreams.
The next reading was Psalm 144, of which here I’ll quote verses 1-8 and 13-16:
Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle; my rock and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues the peoples under me. O Lord, what are human beings that you regard them, or mortals that you think of them? They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow. Bow your heavens, O Lord, and come down; touch the mountains so that they smoke. Make the lightning flash and scatter them; send out your arrows and rout them. Stretch out your hand from on high; set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters, from the hand of aliens, whose mouths speak lies, and whose right hands are false.
May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown, our daughters like corner pillars, cut for the building of a palace. May our barns be filled, with produce of every kind; may our sheep increase by thousands, by tens of thousands in our fields, and may our cattle be heavy with young. May there be no breach in the walls, no exile, and no cry of distress in our streets. Happy are the people to whom such blessings fall; happy are the people whose God is the Lord.
Here, again, the author expresses the relative unimportance of humankind, yet also expresses a desire for God to deliver him/her from depressing circumstances, provide all the good things of life, and keep him/her safe for ever more. The author looks with hope to some future deliverance which will right all wrongs.
After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. Job said:
“Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived.’ Let that day be darkness! May God above not seek it, or light shine on it. Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let clouds settle upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it. That night—let thick darkness seize it! let it not rejoice among the days of the year; let it not come into the number of the months. Yes, let that night be barren; let no joyful cry be heard in it. Let those curse it who curse the Sea, those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan. Let the stars of its dawn be dark; let it hope for light, but have none; may it not see the eyelids of the morning— because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb, and hide trouble from my eyes. “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? Why were there knees to receive me, or breasts for me to suck? Now I would be lying down and quiet; I would be asleep; then I would be at rest with kings and counselors of the earth who rebuild ruins for themselves, or with princes who have gold, who fill their houses with silver. Or why was I not buried like a stillborn child, like an infant that never sees the light? There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest. There the prisoners are at ease together; they do not hear the voice of the taskmaster. The small and the great are there, and the slaves are free from their masters. “Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures; who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad when they find the grave? Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in? For my sighing comes like my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water. Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes.”
This is such a poignant lament from someone suffering in life so much that he curses the day he was born, and wishes to be dead so his suffering will end. I’ve never been in such a place, mentally, but I know others who have and it breaks my heart. Here their lament is joined by that of Job.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Here Saul, who has been unknowingly fighting against God and knowingly causing others to suffer, has been physically blinded by his experience on the road to Damascus. His physical blindness is an analogy for his previous spiritual blindness. Ananias has been asked by God to help Saul regain his sight and to welcome him into the Christian community through baptism.
I think it is important here to note that, despite Saul’s new spiritual awakening and special role to the Gentiles, he was still going to suffer loss of friendships and experience pain, loneliness in prison, depression, and despondency. Such suffering isn’t a sign of God’s disfavor but is part of our mortal experience, no matter who we are.
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Here Jesus promises that those who eat of his flesh will have eternal life. They will have the good things envisioned in Psalm 144, yet he makes no promise that they will not suffer or endure pain, depression, or sadness in this mortal life.
We all know this mortal life can have its ups and downs, and sometimes more downs than ups. We at times think we need to be more optimistic, despite the difficulty of doing so. Yet it seems to me that Christianity is less a story of optimism than it is one of hope. We don’t maintain naive optimism in the face of untold suffering; instead, we hope in a God who wrapped himself in mortality and rejected the power structures of this world; who rejected the hatred, divisiveness, inequality, economics, and politics of this world; who defeated death, put all things under him, and was vindicated as The Way. In his kingdom he wipes all tears from our eyes; there is no sorrow, no pain, no sadness; and the king declares, “Behold, all things are new.”
- What are our obligations as Christians to see that God’s kingdom come and his will be done on earth, as it is in heaven?
- What are the implications for how we view the power structures of this world?
- What must we do different to provide tangible hope for those who suffer?