About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Psalm 88 as Permission to Rant

Earlier this week, I attended Evensong at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds. The psalm for this service was Psalm 88. This was the first time that I’d ever heard this particular psalm read during a public service. I guess this psalm in particular doesn’t lend itself to public worship, at least, not in the ways that public services are usually conceived and delivered. So what is the point of this bleakest of psalms?

The spur for this blog post is a short article from the latest edition of Theology. Here’s the closing paragraph:

Psalm 88 is, and has been for thousands of years, the means to bring honest, sometimes violent, emotions, to God. It allows us to demand that God should act in response to our distress. Anger is a reality of our human behaviour as is the desire for vengeance and retaliation. To deny it is to lie to ourselves and to lie to God. We must be allowed to express the reality of our emotions as they are expressed in the reality of the psalmist situation in Psalm 88. In a culture of praise and adoration towards God, Psalm 88 gives permission to rant at God, removing the guilt of those who are angry with God and who feel that their faith is somehow diminished by their feelings. Through the honest expression of emotion, people may discover a closer, deeper relationship developing with God. It allows him to reach us through that red mist of anguish. Psalm 88 gives permission for us to voice our struggles to reconcile ourselves with what we believe God in all his power and might intends for us and our world, when we are surrounded by disaster, violence and despair.

Beverley Jameson, ‘Difficult Texts: Psalm 88’, Theology 117:5 (2014), p. 359

Jameson makes the point succinctly: ‘In a culture of praise and adoration towards God, Psalm 88 gives permission to rant at God’. There is no easy resolution to pain, and lament accompanies the path from loss to wholeness while recognising that the path cannot be avoided. A church culture that denies the necessity of this path is a church that doesn’t know how to handle the darkest human emotions and doesn’t know how pastorally to care for one another.

A few years ago, I wrote a paper on Psalm 88 and argued something similar to Jameson, but also linked it to the Eucharist. Here’s my conclusion:

To conclude, let us consider one further way in which a space may be provided for people to worship in all circumstances. Holy Communion was once the central practice of our services, the place where the Church met with God. Unfortunately, it has been usurped somewhat by our musical worship. How might a renewed emphasis on Communion help us to grieve as well as praise?

Traditionally, Communion is the place where the worshipping community of the Church meets with God as it remembers Christ. This is no mere recollection but both a remembrance of his sacrificial death and the risen Christ’s promised return; as the liturgy puts it, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ These three aspects are important because they address the importance of appropriate worship in suffering.

First, in remembering that ‘Christ has died’, we recognise that Christ’s body is the body broken, that his blood is the blood shed. To participate in Communion is to remember that in his own life, at least according to Mark’s Gospel, Christ experienced the absence of God and died without resolution: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34) In uttering this anguished question, Christ identifies closely with the persistent cry of Heman in Ps. 88. Though our musical worship often gives thanks to God for Christ’s suffering, we tend not to consider what it meant even for Christ to face God’s absence. The Communion meal redresses this balance.

However, secondly, ‘Christ is risen’. The Church moves from considering Christ’s death to acknowledging his resurrection. Though Christ endured immense pain, it was not for nothing; in the redemptive purposes of God, the cross was the essential means by which God reconciled all things to himself through Christ (Colossians 1:20). In triumphing over death by the cross (Colossians 2:15), Christ has removed the sting from death (1 Corinthians 15:54-57) that so over-shadowed both himself in Mark’s account of the crucifixion and Heman’s fear in Ps. 88. There is real cause for celebration in Communion!

Yet whilst Christ is risen, the Church is not; this sounds a more eschatological note as we remind ourselves that, thirdly, ‘Christ will come again’. Paul writes, ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26, my emphasis). By participating in Communion, the Church eagerly awaits its final consummation. This, of course, is a future consummation; for this reason, the Communion meal roots the Church in the present age and discourages it from the delusion that Christ’s victory over death has removed not just its sting but its existence, too.

Such importance indicates that the Communion meal is no simple recollection. Through the activity of the Holy Spirit, the bread and the wine are used as vehicles through which the Church may know of Christ’s presence; but the Spirit’s activity here only serves to emphasise that for the moment, Christ is also absent. He is not bodily present, but sits at the right hand of the Father (e.g. Ephesians 1:20), even though he also dwells in our hearts (Ephesians 3:17). For the suffering Christian, the Communion meal deals both with the absurdity of belonging to the absent Christ and the hope of future resolution. The meal is both an emetic that recognises human suffering and a sumptuous feast that delights in the promise of resolution when its risen Lord returns. In practice, the meal is the place where Christians paradoxically may meet with the absent God, and the inclusion of a psalm such as Ps. 88 that wrestles with the experience of exclusion can only serve to elaborate upon this mystery and thus broaden the scope and resonance of our worship.

Terry J. Wright, ‘The Darkness of Isolation: Suffering Worship’ (unpublished paper, 2006)

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