Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?
This Sunday, our lay minister, Alison, spoke to us about the fact that, even with faith and trust in God, life is not always rosy.
I think it’s quite interesting that while we might initially take from these readings a positive message of triumph over hopelessness, there is a thread running through three of them at least, that the writer, or the protagonists, had truly reached the depths of despair, before there came some sort of redemption.
Look at Elijah, fleeing for his life, and yet, at the same time, longing for death. It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life he says. His life has become unbearable, and he can not see how God can have a part to play in it, save to bring about his death. I am lucky enough to have never reached such depths, but I know that there are many who have. True people of faith who have thought “That’s it. I can’t face this anymore” To be there, or to be thinking these thoughts, is not, in any way, a failure, a denial of faith; it is simply an acknowledgement that those trite phrases "just pray harder" and "have more faith" are not enough.
What gave Elijah the initial strength to carry on, was the arrival of two angels: the first providing food and drink,; the second giving encouragement and practical advice to help him to continue. We do not know if these were truly heavenly beings, or simply human beings with a desire to help someone in need. Whoever, or whatever, they were, they were indeed sent by God. Because with their help, Elijah was given the strength to go outside, to face the wind, the earthquake, the fire, and finally having come through that, to hear the word of God once more. God was not in the trials: God was in the quiet.
I don’t believe, I have never believed, that God sends us bad times to “test our faith”. Because if he does, I have failed the test over and over. It makes God sound like some sadistic school inspector, giving us a mark out of ten, and forcing us to take another test to see if our faith has “improved”.
No, I think this life is what it is: sometimes wonderful, and glorious and joyous, and sometimes downright shitty. Yes, God has plans for us, and yes, we trust that where we are is where God can use us, and where we can work for the Kingdom. But sometimes life is really hard, and these passages, are a powerful reminder that faith in God is not a fix-all. Life isn’t rosy and full of wealth, and health and contentment just because we believe.
Our Psalms today – we read both because it is generally thought that they were originally one Psalm – is a reflection on this. Psalm 42 begins with that beautiful image of a deer thirsting for water, and the comparison with how our hearts yearn for God. This is echoed in the song we have just sung; but the Psalmist then goes on to speak about how difficult life is, My tears have been my food day and night…. Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?... I will say to the God of my strength, "Why have you forgotten me?... my enemies mock me to my face; and say to me, "Where now is your God?" He is not a happy man!
And yet, and yet…Through all of this, the Psalmist hangs on (possibly by his fingertips) to the belief that he is loved and he is precious, that God is good. For three times there is the refrain: Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? and why are you so disquieted within me? Put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.
I think there was this trust in God’s love and care in Elijah as well: he knew he had done the Lord’s work, he knew that he was the prophet of God, he was precious. Despite all this he had reached the end of his tether. He maybe had gone beyond being able to declare with the Psalmist “Put your trust in God, for I will yet give thanks to him” but I do believe that in his heart Elijah still recognised that he was part of God’s Kingdom plan.
And we have the story of the healing of the man they called Legion. Again he was in despair, living among the tombs, scavenging for scraps, really in the depths, tormented by his mental illness to such an extent that he was unable to live in his society. But somewhere, hidden in the fear and self-loathing and pain there was the seed of understanding that Jesus had the answer to end his anguish. Somehow he knew that even if everyone else had rejected him, Jesus would not. "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? he asked. And Jesus, in healing Legion, showed that he had come not just to physically cast out demons, but to challenge and cast out every power that prevents people living fully and freely.
Here we have three people, all cast into the depths, all living in their own personal hell, but all who cling onto a belief that God is there. That they are precious and loved. They are not rejected by God even if it feels like it at the time.
You may be feeling cast down, and mocked, like the Psalmist; like Elijah you may feel your situation is hopeless and you simply want to lie down and die; or like Legion, you may feel bound by chains of fear, or illness, or sin. Then hold on to God’s hand, even if that is all you can do. Remember that, as one commentator says: Jesus is always showing up in the places of death and dying and transforming them for new life, for new hope, for new beginnings. Jesus sets us free from the many ties that bind us and the tombs that claim us so that we can proclaim with our lives the Good News of a God who, in the face of death, whispers new life.
He is there; God is with you, he is quietly whispering to you. Even in the worst places, not of his making but that exist all the same, God is there. It may not be the same author, but in Psalm 139 there are the words Even if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
But what of us who may not be in the depths. How do these readings speak to us? Well, perhaps . “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” is not just the prayer of Legion, but our prayer as well. For after he has been healed, Jesus instructs Legion to "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you."
We have all been healed. And for those of us who are not suffering, for whom life is trundling along nicely, our task is to declare God’s goodness, and to live his love. The reading from Galatians reminds us of the foundation of our faith : that everyone is precious to God, and everyone is loved by God. Jew, gentile, slave, free person, mentally ill, in despair, suicidal, criminal, homeless, refugee…
And we are called to show this love. We are to be the angels that gave Elijah the strength to continue with his task; we are to be those who grant loving-kindness to the Psalmist in his despair; we are called to stand with Jesus to welcome those in need and not reject them. But we need to also remember to show understanding and empathy, and not simply to offer superficial help.
Even though Elijah met with the full force of God on mount Horeb, life was still as tough as it always was. Even though the Psalmist may have had his friends and faith to support him, he still felt cast down and despairing. Even though Legion was healed of his demons, he still needed guidance and help to know how to continue with his life.
Let this be a warning to all of us, those of us called on to help those in despair, not to deploy glib statements about how things will be better; instead, like Jesus, may we meet the very real and human needs of each person in distress, hurting, facing abuse or neglect. Let us offer refuge, a listening ear, understanding, nourishment – for body and mind, as well as soul. Let us stand with Jesus and give of ourselves to those who need to know they are loved.
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? and why are you so disquieted within me?
Put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.