Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.
Psalm 130 is one of powerful waiting: the waiting that shouts at the computer upon reading about more dear students being gunned down in Pakistan; the waiting that hangs up the phone with a friend with a sigh and a prayer for better news, soon; the waiting on the way home from a rough doctor’s visit and the days when the phone may or may not ring with test results; the waiting for the load to lighten, just a bit, for once.
Congregation members may wonder why so many sermons in our tradition plod like a mule through the muck and mire of human suffering so often. Where is the joy? Where is the levity? Isn’t God a source of light, life and happiness? Well, that is probably for two main reasons: 1) We are determined to study the Bible, and much of the Bible is covered with tear stains. And, 2) pain and suffering can be important teachers, companions and inevitable houseguests. If they are to be part of our world, we must address them.
Barbara Brown Taylor in her book “An Altar in the World” considers the “practice of experiencing pain” to be a spiritual discipline, one that of course no one should set out to practice, but one that finds all of us at some time or another. She notes that intense pain makes theologians out of us all. She recounts the night she spent on the bathroom floor after accidentally poking a stick into her own eye. It would eventually be dubbed a torn cornea, but that night it was a relentless teacher. She learned who she was and also who she thought God was. She made bargains with God, prayed in desperate ways with every jolt of pain and noticed every passing hour, minute even. She waited for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning.
She wrote that there would always be people who run from every kind of pain, just as there will be religions willing to put everyone to sleep. For those willing to stay awake, she said, pain remains a reliable altar in the world, a place to discover that life is as full of meaning as it is of hurt. The two have never canceled each other out and she doubts they ever will, at least not until each of us – or all of us together – find the way through.
I don’t know what redemption means in the suffering experienced now in Pakistan or anywhere else. I hope it means God’s justice, some future of peace and vats of healing for all those who suffer. But what I do know is that God is no stranger to the hurt and God charted Jesus’ course through rejection and torture so that we could always cry out to one who knows, one who has been there and back. And God made promises – and sometimes, we get a glimpse of those promises being answered. Sometimes we can chart our spiritual growth on the wall with a pencil after times of mind-spinning suffering. Other times, we can see how it motivates. Every nonprofit, every world religion for that matter, was born in a well of tears and a jaw-clenching resolve to stop those tears from spreading. And sometimes, we see how it makes the joys brighter, the success counted sweeter and the blue skies priceless after the long storm.
And we know that Bible tells us that in every moment, God is with us, one scarred hand holding ours. As Christmas makes stark those moments of suffering, the black contrasting the red and green in awkward and obvious ways, the long nights of the year and of the soul, may God grant you all comfort… and joy.
Becca Messman is the associate pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia. She leads “Lunch for the Soul” – a ministry with Hispanic day laborers. Her other passions are preaching and offering pastoral prayers, leading retreats, energizing church leaders to serve the community around them, youth and young adult ministry, and cultivating the “fear and trembling” holy journey of parenting. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband Dave, her two young children, and her dog Luna.