Thursday, February 11, 2010

Psalm 88

Friday, February 12, 2010 -- Week of 5 Epiphany, Year Two
Charles Freer Andrews, Priest and "Friend of the Poor" in India, 1940

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 947)
Psalms 88 (morning) 91, 92 (evening)
Genesis 27:46 - 28:4, 10-22
Romans 13:1-14
John 8:33-47

First, a word about today new observance in our trial calendar:
Andrews, Charles Freer [1871-Feb. 12, 1940] Anglican priest and friend of Gandhi, he felt called to service among the poor in India. He was deeply involved with the struggle for Indias independence, and worked so tirelessly to bring races and castes together that he eventually resigned his own orders so they would not stand as a separation between himself and those he served. Later he worked in Fiji, parts of the South Pacific and Africa to help free indentured Indian servants. (Feb 12)

I have a very early meeting today and don't have enough time to write.

Here's a reflection from Nov. 11, 2006 that reflects on this morning's Psalm 88.

As far as I know, Episcopalians do something in worship today that is unique among Christians. Everywhere that we gather in public prayer of the Daily Office of Morning Prayer, we will read Psalm 88. When the famous Old Testament scholar Bernhard Anderson was on sabbatical at my seminary, he taught a class on the Psalms and remarked that he knew of no denomination that used Psalm 88 in public worship. One of the students pulled out a Prayer Book and pointed to a day like today -- a Friday in the cycle of the Daily Office -- and showed him that we do. Anderson seemed to like that very much.

It's easy to see why leaders of public worship have shied away from Psalm 88. It's pretty depressing. "O Lord, my God, my Savior, by day and night I cry to you." The mention of God as Savior is about as good as it gets. "You have laid me in the depths of the Pit, in dark places, and in the abyss. ...You have put my friends far from me; you have made me to be abhorred by them... My sight has failed me because of trouble; Lord, I have called upon you daily; I have stretched out my hands to you. Do you work wonders for the dead?" (The presumed answer is "no.") "...Lord, why have you rejected me? Why have you hidden your face from me? Ever since my youth, I have been wretched and at the point of death; I have borne your terrors with a troubled mind. Your blazing anger has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me."

The psalmist not only cries out to God the passion of his misery, but also lays his circumstances upon God as the source of his suffering. Such boldness is not unknown, or even that uncommon in Hebrew tradition. But the unusual thing about this Psalm is that the prayer never mitigates the completeness of his plight with any hint of hope or praise.

There are other psalms of lament, but they usually find some expression of relief, even if only a verse. "But I put my trust in you, O Lord, and you will come to my aid." No so in Psalm 88. This is a cry of unbroken distress. No pious words of trust or hope soften the words of grief, accusation, anger, and questioning.

There are many psalms that speak of the horrors of human suffering. Psalm 22 finds its way into much of our Holy Week liturgy -- "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? *and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?" All of the other psalms employ some expression of hope, some commitment to praise. Psalm 22 changes tone after 20 verses when the psalmist says, "I will declare your Name to my brethren; *in the midst of the congregation I will praise you." Eight more verses of praise and hope then follow.

That's not the path of Psalm 88. It ends alone and dark: "My friend and neighbor you have put away from me, * and darkness is my only companion." That is the closing image -- "darkness is my only companion."

No gentle encouragement. No "It'll work out." No "Take heart, God is with you." This is the cry of unbroken misery.

I'm glad we have Psalm 88. I'm glad we read it out loud in public. There are times and conditions that we experience as unmitigated sadness. There are circumstances that are hopeless.

This Psalm stands to affirm that such expressions of grief are legitimate. It is not faithless to cry out in helpless and hopeless anguish. It is not wrong to place responsibility for such wrongs at the feet of God. And you don't have to appease God with some word of piety, hope or praise.

We can be completely honest toward God with our thoughts and feelings. And God is big enough to take it all. God won't punish us for being hurt and angry, even hurt and angry at God.

In fact, only God can take this kind of suffering. To give it to God might restrain us from internalizing our angry grief into a depression or externalizing by lashing out at someone else. Only God is great enough to take this kind of misery and not compound it.

I wonder what happened when this poet finished his lament. What happened when he moved into the silence after he uttered "darkness is my only companion"? I don't know. But I'll bet thousands of his descendants have prayed this Psalm with tears and somehow felt understood.


Audio podcast: Listen to an audio podcast of the most recent Morning Reflections from today and the past week. Click the following link: Morning Reflection Podcasts

About Morning Reflections
Morning Reflections is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117

An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site at this location --

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

Visit our web site at

Our Rule of Life
We aspire to...
worship weekly
pray daily
learn constantly
serve joyfully
live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Ark


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