Sometimes certain texts in the bible make you wonder: Is this really the word of God? Why is this text in scripture? What’s the lesson here?
For example, we have verses in the Psalms, in passages that we pray liturgically, where we ask God to bash the heads of the children of our enemies against a rock. How does that invite us to love our enemies? We see passages in the Book of Job where Job is in despair and curses not on only the day he was born but the very fact that anyone was born. It’s impossible to find even a trace of anything positive in his lament. Similarly, in a rather famous text, we hear Qoheleth affirm that everything in our lives and in the life of this world is simple vanity, wind, vapor, of no substance and of no consequence. What’s the lesson here? Then, in the Gospels, we have passages where the apostles, discouraged by opposition to their message, ask Jesus to call down fire and destroy the very people to whom they are supposed to minister. Hardly an exemplar for ministry!
Why are these texts in the bible? Because they give us sacred permission to feel the way we feel sometimes and they give us sacred tools to help us deal with the shortcomings and frustrations of our lives. They are, in fact, both very important and very consoling texts because, to put it metaphorically, they give us a large enough keyboard to play all the songs that we need to play in our lives. They give us the laments and the prayers we need to utter sometimes in the face of our human condition, with its many frustrations, and in the face of death, tragedy, and depression.
To give a simple example: A friend of mine shares this story: Recently he was in church with his family, which included his seven year-old son, Michael, and his own mother, Michael’s grandmother. At one point, Michael, seated beside his grandmother, whispered aloud: “I’m so bored!” His grandmother pinched him and chided him: “You are not bored!” as if the sacred ambience of church and an authoritative command could change human nature. They can’t. When we’re bored, we’re bored! And sometimes we need to be given divine permission to feel what we’re spontaneously feeling.
Some years ago, for all the noblest of intentions, a religious community I know wanted to sanitize the Psalms that they pray regularly in the Divine Office to rid them of all elements of anger, violence, vengeance, and war. They had some of their own scripture scholars do the work so that it would be scholarly and serious. They succeeded in that, the product was scholarly and serious, but stripped of all motifs of violence, vengeance, anger, and war what resulted was something that looked more like a Hallmark Card than a series of prayers that express real life and real feelings. We don’t always feel upbeat, generous, and faith-filled. Sometimes we feel angry, bitter, and vengeful. We need to be given sacred permission to feel that way (though not to act that way) and to pray in honesty out of that space.
My parents, and for the most part their whole generation, would, daily, in their prayers, utter these words: To You do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Our own generation tends to view this as morbid, as somehow denigrating both the beauty and joy of life and the perspective that faith is meant to give us. But there’s a hidden richness in that prayer. In praying in that way, they gave themselves sacred permission to accept the limits of their lives. That prayer carries the symbolic tools to handle frustration; something, I submit, we have failed to sufficiently give to our own children. Too many young people today have never been given the symbolic tools to handle frustration, nor sacred permission to feel what they are feeling. Sometimes, all good intentions aside, we have handed our children more of Walt Disney than Gospel.
In the Book of Lamentations we find a passage that while sounding negative on the surface, is paradoxically, in the face of death and tragedy, perhaps the most consoling text of all. The text simply states that, sometimes in life, all we can do is put our mouths to the dust and wait!
That’s sound advice, spoken from the mouth of experience and the mouth of faith.
The poet, Rainer Marie Rilke, once wrote these words to a friend who, in the face of the death of a loved one, wondered how or where he could ever find consolation. What do I do with all this grief? Rilke’s reply: “Do not be afraid to suffer, give that heaviness back to the weight of the earth; mountains are heavy, seas are heavy.” They are, so too is life sometimes and we need to be given God’s permission to feel that heaviness.