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Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Psalm for the Depressed

The first Bible I owned was a little New Testament with the Psalms in the back, so I grew up thinking of the Psalms as an extension of the New Testament.

I still kind of think of them that way. And one of my favorites is what I call "A Psalm for the Depressed," one of a nearly a third of the Psalms that are laments.

This one is just six verses, easily divided into three stanzas of two verses each, the first one expressing desperate despair, the next stanza about equally desperate prayer, and last one that's all about renewed hope and praise.

Despair

How much longer will you forget me, Lord? Forever?
    
How much longer will you hide yourself from me?

How long must I endure trouble?
   
How long will sorrow fill my heart day and night?
    
How long will my enemies triumph over me?
          
When we’re having one of our “dark nights of the soul” our misery feels endless. Time stands still. Nights seem forever. In the mode of this first stanza, we're full of unanswered questions. Every one of its five lines ends with a question mark. And every question is the same, it’s about How long? or How much longer?

Everything looks dark when we're depressed, and we feel alone. Even in a crowded room, or in a community with dozens of people living all around us, we tend to feel isolated, and like no one knows or understands. Not only our friends and family, but even God has forgotten about us and has gone into hiding.

I heard a story once of a man who drank so much so that he passed out one day with too much alcohol. Some of his friends decided to play a trick on him by rubbing some limburger cheese on his mustache, right under his nose. A little while later, when he came to, he said, “Man, something really stinks in here. What is it?” He looked around everywhere, and everywhere things seemed to smell just as bad, and just as strong. When he stepped outside the house to get some fresh air, he found that the smell was as bad as ever. So he exclaimed, in disgust, “The whole world stinks!”

Sometimes that’s just the way it feels with depression. Everything seems just too awful.

So what does this psalmist do after getting all this awfulness off his chest?

Prayer

He prays. Desperately.

Look at me, O Lord my God, and answer me.
    
Restore my strength; don't let me die.

Don't let my enemies say, “We have defeated him.”
    
Don't let them gloat over my downfall.

In other words, if you don't do something now, God, it’s going to make you look bad. My enemies will have a field day, celebrating another one of your children going down in defeat.

God doesn’t seem to mind these desperate, in-your-face, demands. The prayer gets included right in the Holy Bible. God understands and honors it.

This then leads to the next step.

Praise

Some people think praise is where we should start. When we feel down, just go into a praise mode. It’ll make you feel better.

And that’s fine, of course, if we can pull that off. But if not, we may need to back up and do some desperate, raw, from-the-gut praying first. And if we can’t even pray, then we may need to back up to the first part of the psalm, and just yell out a string of laments. Take the liberty to bang on the door of heaven with our “Why?” and “How much longer?” questions, until we can pray, and then pray until we can praise.

And sure enough, that finally happens.

I rely on your constant love;
    
I will be glad, because you will rescue me.

I will sing to you, O Lord,
    
because you have been good to me.

The progression of this Psalm reminds me a little of a plane flight.

The lamenting part is sort of like taxiing on to the runway, getting the plane off dead center and getting it lined up for take off. Then prayer becomes like the jet-burst of energy that gets us accelerating to lift off. The praise part of the flight is finally becoming airborne. We gain the kind of altitude that gives us a whole new attitude, a new perspective on our troubles.

Our troubles haven’t necessarily gone away, we've just gained a way of seeing them from a completely different point of view, in light of the bigger picture,

More like the way things may look from God’s perspective.

(This is a condensed version of a message I gave to residents at the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community this morning)
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