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Home > 2013 > January Web Exclusives > Befriending the Darkness

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Liturgies of lament

Of all the psalms of lament, Psalm 88 is the bleakest. It seems entirely devoid of hope. All that is left is despair and desolation. But even this psalm, for all its despair, is not entirely hopeless. It is, after all, a prayer. It is addressed to God even though it offers no assurance that God is listening. And what a strange and enigmatic way for the psalm to end: "The darkness is my closest friend." Can it really be that the darkness itself can become a friend?

Through the Psalter, the traditional liturgy of the Church has been rich with lament and thereby remained pastorally pertinent. Sadly, one must seriously question whether this remains the case within the churches with which I am most familiar. No collection of hymns or songs has ever been flawless, and every generation of the church has managed to produce its fair share of poetic and musical dross. But it is fair to say that the majority of contemporary songs are up-beat in tempo and that the balance between the affective and the confessional and declaratory has swung in favor of the former. This style of worship focuses almost exclusively on praise, adoration, and thanksgiving, with clapping and other expressions of exuberance.

This form of worship renders it difficult to opt out, to observe, to sit, and to pray quietly while the performance proceeds. For the person who comes as this psalmist comes, for the person wrestling with any form of clinical depression, for the person tortured by the breaking down of relationships, for the recently bereaved, all this is unrelieved torture.

Any liturgy that does not include regular and broad engagement with the Psalter could, in these respects, be similarly faulted. Time and again the psalmists put into words, with disarming candor, feelings and prayers that most of us would struggle to express but echo nonetheless.

Am I angry with God? There are psalms that name this anger. Am I isolated and opposed? There are psalms that express this loneliness. Am I despairing of justice in human society or international relations? That same despair finds voice here. Am I fearful concerning the future for myself and for those I love? There are psalms that reassure me that I am not alone in such fears.

I believe that the Resurrection overwhelms the Cross, but not in a way that negates it or obscures it. It is the crucified one who is risen just as it is the risen one who was crucified. The risen and ascended Christ still bears the marks of slaughter.

Despair is not the last word

I have not taken lithium for almost thirty years. As my closest family and friends will tell you, I have certainly not "recovered." I've just spent thirty years developing strategies for coping.

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Related Topics:DiscouragementEnduranceSoulWeakness
Posted: January 21, 2013

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January 23, 2013  12:14pm

This was such a great, transparent, and candid article. I am sharing it with many friends who, like me, can relate. Our pastor is doing a series called Enjoying God. Here is the link http://www.efcc.org/resources/sermons/. Even the worship has helped to lift me out of some terribly overwhelming darkness. His sermon last week spoke right to those of us who suffer from these swings. Also, I read a book called "The Mood Cure" by Julia Ross, which has helped me to self diagnose my issues and use homeopathic remedies which do not inhibit my own emotional states. The remedies really help me just be able to control them better. I notice the effects of the remedies immediately and really can tell when I forget to take them. Thank you again for your candor.

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January 23, 2013  6:02am

'our suffering and distress is not the final word.' Thank You, God.

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Melody Harrison Hanson

January 22, 2013  2:44pm

Thank you. As a fellow sufferer, I thank you for this reflection and for the hope I find there. Even tho, "the darkness is a lingering presence on the margins of my mind, never wholly absent, always threatening. Is this darkness truly unending? Will it endure forever?" It's been ten years for me, off and on, but going off medication helped me to cry again.

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January 22, 2013  2:02pm

And yet, there are other medications besides lithium, probably many new ones since the author first was diagnosed. I have struggled with depression for many years, and have partial relief with medication. Without medication, I would be overwhelmed with unbearable pain. It isn't always a choice between medication and fullness of life - sometimes medication just gives a stronger base that allows a person back into life. It can be like insulin to a diabetic - supplying something that the body lacks.

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Marshall Shelley

January 22, 2013  8:54am

Thank you for a story that isn't comfortable to read, but one that brings us to the ineffable. Well done, John. Well done.

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