Thursday, July 21, 2016

Praying with Laments and... Steel Magnolias

One of my favorite movies of all time is Steel Magnolias.* I must have seen it for the first time when I was four or five years old and have loved it ever since. If you have not seen this film, I’m not sure why you’re reading this insignificant, little blog and not searching for it right now on Netflix. Be fair warned that there will be spoilers in this post.

One of the best scenes of the film is when M’Lynn, so brilliantly portrayed by Sally Field, is at the cemetery with her friends after the untimely death of her only daughter, Shelby. Her grief is immeasurable, and she breaks down in one of the most gripping and visceral expressions of human anguish to which anyone who has experienced a tragic loss can surely relate. Human suffering such as this, I believe, is inevitable. We only need to turn on the news or read the front page of the newspaper to recognize that people of all races, all religions, and all professions are hurting everywhere – be it from death, war, hunger, natural disasters, abuse, prejudice, or persecution. What help, then, might Scripture offer in times of great sorrow?

I find that the Scriptures contain many comforting messages of hope and salvation and promises of a better future. Christ’s very death and resurrection stands preeminent among them as we grapple with the mystery of suffering. But I am wary of pushing certain hopeful parts of Scripture upon the grieving soul. At the gravesite in Steel Magnolias, M’Lynn’s friend, Annelle, tries to comfort her by expressing how good it is that Shelby is now with her King in Heaven. Not surprisingly, her well-intentioned, though inopportune, sentiment is met with sharp bitterness. Although bringing up the joy and hope of eternal life can be healing in its own right, when it comes to our pain, whatever the cause, we need to acknowledge it, not move it along. We need to sit with it, feel it, exclaim it. And we have a precedent for this in the Scriptures.

The book of Psalms is a collection of ancient, lyrical poems from a wide range of periods in Israelite history. They run the gamut of human emotion and reveal just how personally this people related with their God. In Hebrew, the Psalms are called Tehillim or "praises," and indeed most of the Psalms offer praise in some form or another to God. Some are distinctly hymns of praise, others are of thanksgiving, some refer to the monarchy, to God's anointed, or to the sovereignty of God, and others offer wise instruction. But the largest category of Psalms are the laments, hymns either individual or communal that express deep sorrow and pain, remorse, a dire plea for rescue, or even accusations against God.

There is a Yiddish word that describes perfectly the tone and tenor of many laments, a word we should integrate into our own spirituality and everyday vocabulary: chutzpah (the "ch" as in Chanukah not Cheetos). Defined in Merriam-Webster as "Personal confidence or courage that allows someone to say or do things that may seem shocking to others," this is the kind of boldness that the people of Israel had when speaking with their God in these laments.

You hand us over like sheep to be slaughtered,
            scatter us among the nations.
You sell your people for nothing;
            you make no profit from their sale. (Ps 44:12-13)

And why shouldn’t Israel have the audacity to speak this way? In one of my favorite Scripture passages (Jeremiah 13:1-11), God describes his chosen people as being as close to him as underwear is to a man’s loins! When you are that close and intimate with someone, there are no masks; there are no pretenses. You can say exactly what is on your heart. Personally, I think that the freedom to appropriately argue with an intimate friend or loved one is a sign of a healthy relationship. If God is so near to us, why not have a little chutzpah? Shocking though it may be, it’s okay to be mad at God! At least you're being honest. And as a fellow friar once remarked, “What? You think God can’t take it?"

In that same scene with the grieving mother and her friends, M’lynn screams in desperation. “Oh God, I want to know WHY!!! Whyyy?!” Perhaps it is a cry we are all familiar with. Why did my baby die? Why did our house flood? Why did that man kill all those people? Why did he hurt me? Why did she leave me? Why am I terminally ill? It is no different in the Psalms:

Why, God, have you cast us off forever?
            Why does your anger burn against the sheep of your pasture? (Ps 74:1)

Why have you broken down the walls,
            so that all who pass by pluck its fruit? (Ps 80:13)

Why do you reject me, Lord?
            Why hide your face from me? (Ps 88:15)

The Psalms are not afraid to question God. They are not afraid to wrestle with God and the mystery of suffering. Incidentally, the meaning of the name Israel given in Genesis 32 suggests “one who struggles with God.” But for all of the articulations of misery, anger, and regret in the laments, for all the cries demanding God’s assistance and all the anxious fears of imminent death, there is usually found within them pronouncements of utter trust in the Lord and, quite frequently, irrepressible praise to God.

Psalm 22 – the one Jesus quotes as he is dying on the cross – begins with a cry of despair: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? And while the psalm has some excruciating verses – But I am a worm, hardly human, scorned by everyone, despised by the people (v. 7), Many dogs surround me; a pack of evildoers closes in on me. So wasted are my hands and feet that I can count all my bones (vv. 17-18) – it is punctuated by stanzas with complete confidence in God’s power to save and concludes triumphantly with the sufferer's exultation of God because of his hope for future vindication: Then I will proclaim your name to the assembly; in the community I will praise you (v. 23).

More often than not, the laments approach God in this way. They may be poems of great anguish, and they certainly don’t mind doling out the chutzpah, but they usually give to God due praise. There are a few laments, however, that do not mitigate their complaint against God. Psalm 44, for example, at first gives the impression that God is to be praised for all of the former blessings and victories God had bestowed upon Israel. And while it stands that such were all praiseworthy deeds, the psalmist only uses the examples of God’s past favors to set up his argument that God has now rejected them, that God has unjustly left them desolate. The Psalm does not end in praise of God but in demands, sorrow, and accusations:

Awake! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Rise up! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face;
why forget our pain and misery?
We are bowed down to the ground;
our bodies are pressed to the earth.
Rise up, help us!
Redeem us as your love demands (Ps 44:24-27)

Similarly, the composer of Psalm 88 pours out a heartbreaking prayer to a seemingly silent God. There is no praise of God, only desperate supplication and the belief that the lamenter is suffering for God’s sake and, at times, by God’s own hand. It ends hauntingly: Because of you companions shun me; my only friend is darkness (v. 19).

  As tragic as these laments may seem, the very fact that the psalmists are crying out to God shows that they have some faith, some smidgeon of hope that God will indeed rescue them in their time of need. Though the authors’ circumstances may be different than our own, we can still pray with the Psalms in the midst of our own sorrows, because hopefully, even when everything else is utterly lost, we still at least have a God to cry out to… even when we’re angry with God.

But how does God answer us in our pain? Is there any fulfillment to the pleas in the Psalms for God to rescue us? Sometimes, very much so! Sometimes we are able to see how God has come to our aid. We are healed. Our loved ones are safe. We secure employment. We are reconciled. Sometimes justice, charity, and peace prevail. And I haven't even touched on the notion of Christ's death and resurrection, which is ultimately our salvation!

Yet even still, there are those moments when we are like M'Lynn at her daughter's grave, so grief-stricken, so disconsolate. In anger and sorrow she hollers, "I just want to hit somebody 'til they feel as bad as I do!" – a very honest and human response, no doubt. Isn't it true that in our own moments of suffering it is oftentimes a comfort to be met with empathy, to be near to someone who knows something of our pain? Isn't that why we have support groups? Isn't that why we seek help from those who know what it's like to lose a loved one, who know something about living with depression, or who have gone through a divorce?

God does not always answer our laments and supplications the way we hope. At some point, we and those we love will die. Sometimes we are left with scars that won't heal. I think, however, that God's answer to these Psalms is not always immediate rescue, rather it is that God knows what it's like to feel as bad as we do. God's answer was to become human and live these very Psalms, to be betrayed, to be mocked and abused, to be abandoned, to die. God knows the depths of human suffering, and in Jesus we do not pray the Psalms alone. God is with us in our suffering. God has indeed shown us his face, as the psalmists so desperately demand, and it is the face of the Crucified One.

Naturally for this week, I recommend reading and meditating upon any of the laments from the Psalms. A couple of my favorites are 22, 38, 42-43, 44, 51, 69, 74, 80, 88, 102, 137. Feel free to thumb through your Bible to find a Psalm that you like, one that resonates with you, or one that makes you cringe. Sit with the pain of the psalmist, or meditate on the sufferings of Christ. If you are struggling with something, then make the psalmist's words your own. Cry out to God, and don't be afraid to have a little chutzpah. God is listening. Maybe you're not really feeling too sorrowful at the moment yourself, but pray with the Psalm knowing that there are people out there who are in desperate situations. Pray with it for the sake of their pain. Pray that they may not feel alone in their suffering.

As always, you may post comments or questions to my e-mail, Facebook page or the comment box below. You can share your own thoughts on the Psalms or tell me which is your favorite. I would love to hear feedback. You can also follow the Codega on Twitter. Until next time...

Go watch Steel Magnolias!

And peace & all good.

* Steel Magnolias, directed by Herbert Ross (1989; Culver City, CA: Columbia Tristar Home Video, 2000), DVD.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Influence & Interpretation

            It has certainly been awhile since my last post. My apologies. There were many loose ends to tie up in the month of May, and since then I also have been traveling quite a bit on the road – never mind the fact that vacation time has made me lazy. I know: excuses, excuses. In truth, I began a post at the start of June, but I found myself dissatisfied with its content, so, like the potter of Jeremiah 18:1-4, I've started over... and over. After several attempts, I am desperate to post something (anything) on this blog, so I'm keeping today's post a little shorter. I can hear the sighs of relief already.

            The recent attack on our LGBT brothers and sisters in Orlando, as well as the general increase in mass shootings over the years, have weighed heavy on my mind. It has me pondering what sort of influential factors – aside from mental illness – feed the kinds of ideologies that lead to such tragedies. I'm well aware of the powerful role that religion and sacred literature play in our lives – largely for good, but sometimes for ill when they are misconstrued. So, as one who writes about Scripture, it concerns me that poor interpretations of sacred writings sometimes contribute to humanity's worst atrocities, from hate crimes to all out war. I'm not drawing a direct link between the Bible and hate crimes or terrorism, but I do think it is necessary to ask ourselves, Do the Scriptures draw me to love my neighbor? Why or why not? How does Scripture influence my image of God? What, then, does that image of God incite within me? Fear? Hate? Love? Peace?

            One of the reasons why the Bible is often grossly misunderstood is that many people, even very well-intentioned people, take a fundamentalist approach to Scripture. But the Pontifical Biblical Commission (i.e. the Catholic Church's committee to ensure proper interpretation of Scripture – let it never be said that the Catholic Church doesn't care about the Bible) has some interesting things to say about this sort of take on Sacred Scripture.

"Fundamentalist interpretation starts from the principle that the Bible, being the Word of God, inspired and free from error, should be read and interpreted literally in all its details. But by 'literal interpretation' it understands a naively literalist interpretation, one, that is to say, which excludes every effort at understanding the Bible that takes account of its historical origins and development."[1]
But wait, it gets better. The Commission goes on to say,
"The fundamentalist approach is dangerous, for it is attractive to people who look to the Bible for ready answers to problems of life. It can deceive these people, offering them interpretations that are pious and illusory, instead of telling them that the Bible does not necessarily contain an immediate answer to each and every problem. Without saying as much in so many words, fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide" (emphasis mine).[2]

            The Bible is not a history book. It is not a science book. It isn't even a handbook of morality. True, the Scriptures can be a rich source of encouragement, consolation, moral exhortation or reprimand, and certainly of truths about who God is and our relationship with God. Indeed, short phrases and passages from the Bible are frequently quoted and read in everything from greeting cards to Sunday Mass readings so that the Word of God might touch us in these very ways. But, as we strive to understand what God is saying to us in these sacred texts, it is important to keep in mind that the human authors, through whom the Holy Spirit worked, wrote in a particular time and place in history. They had their own culture, their own language and literary styles, and their own limited understanding of the natural sciences. Therefore, as stated in Dei Verbum (the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation by Vatican II), "in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, [the interpreter] should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words."[3]

            Okay, I've been on my soapbox long enough. (Actually it is the Church's soapbox, as I have spent most of my time quoting Church documents.) If the fundamentalist approach to Scripture is so abhorrent, if we want to avoid "intellectual suicide," what, then, are we to do with Scripture? Knowing that the Bible should not always be taken literally, a number of folks have asked me plainly, "How should we interpret the Bible?" A complex question, indeed, and I said I'd keep this post brief today.

            There is no short answer to this query. Theologians, biblical scholars, and even some of the authors of Scripture themselves have been wrestling with questions about biblical interpretation for millennia. I return to my Shrek-inspired assessment of Scripture: "The Bible is like an onion; it has layers." Layers of meaning, that is. My first inclination, as Dei Verbum suggests, is to explore the historical, cultural, and literary context, but that takes some research, and not everyone has the time or resources for that - though I'd like to draw your attention to some websites listed in the top right-hand corner, particularly "Bible Research" and "Bible Odyssey." But if your reading Scripture for your spiritual benefit, without tomes of biblical exegesis, and want to know how best to approach these texts, I would say look to Jesus, the very Word made flesh, and keep in mind the bigger picture.

            If we want to avoid the kinds of corrupt biblical misinterpretations that lead to prejudice, hate and violence, we should remember that the Word of God tells a story of a God who brings forth life, who wants to be in relationship with humanity, who calls his people to faithfulness, who loves his people, poor, lowly, and faltering though they are. It is a story about how God saves his people, sometimes from outside forces but often from the very calamities they incur from their own mistakes. And if you read the Gospels you find that this story reaches a climax in the person of Jesus. In him the saving God, who desires to be in relationship with his people, becomes flesh and dwells among us, ultimately laying down his own life that we may be saved.

            You also find that this story continues today beyond the pages of Scripture in the lives of those who have united themselves to Christ, who have died and risen in Christ. You see it in the lives of those who suffer, in the poor and those who radically depend on God, in those who long for justice, in those who heal and show mercy, in those who rise up from the ashes of destruction and usher in new life, and in those who love without counting the cost. This is the biblical story alive in our world today!

            If you want an interpretive lens for reading the Bible, examine the life of Christ, and remember that our saving God desires to be near to us, heal us, and make us whole. This is not an exhaustive account of biblical interpretation. Oh honey, there are many, many more layers left unpeeled. Yet if we read the Scriptures keeping these things in mind, perhaps we can curb the hate and violence that is born from ideologies based in literalist and corrupt interpretations of the Bible.

            For this week I suggest reading Isaiah 54, but read it in light of the bigger picture of Scripture, of God's saving and loving relationship with humanity. Behind this portion of Isaiah we have God's chosen people, who have been in exile in Babylon for decades. Whether or not it was due to poor politics and inferior defenses, the people of Judah believed they were in exile because of their infidelity to God. But, at last, the Babylonian empire falls to Persia, and God's chosen are free to return to the Promised Land. Thus the prophet speaks tenderly to the people, revealing to them God's love, mercy, and desire to reunite himself to them despite the sins of their past. You can read innumerable passages in the Bible referring to God's blazing wrath – I won't deny that they're in there – but ultimately it all comes back to God's love for his people. So as you read this, ask yourself, How does this affect my image of God? Do I see myself in this passage? How? How might my relationship with my neighbor be affected by a message like this one? Meanwhile, let us pray and work for peace in our world, for mercy, and for the increase of tolerance. Until next time...

Peace and all good!

[1] Pontifical Biblical Commission, "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church," The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teaching, ed. & trans. by Dean P. B├ęchard (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002), 273.

[2] Ibid., 275.

[3] Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum (1965), no. 12, accessed June 14, 2016,