Canticles: Psalm 27—The Lord Will Take Me Up

This post is part of a series called CANTICLES, in which I reflect upon a poetic biblical text chosen for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.

Psalm 27 is one of our richest psalms. It is infinitely quotable. Tucked between assurances of God’s protection and a yearning for quality time in God’s beautiful presence, we stumble across these words:

“If my father and mother forsake me,
The Lord will take me up.”

Some translators, including Robert Alter and Rolf Jacobson, take the guesswork out of the poetry, moving the situation from the possible to the actual:

“Even my father and my mother have abandoned me,
but the Lord will gather me in.”1

The sentence jars and shocks. Up to this point, the poem had been a fairly standard, if well-written psalm. The enemies were described in military terms. God was depicted as a stronghold. The enemies were coming close, but God would save. Quietly, almost imperceptibly, the psalmist begins the transition to the personal.

“Come,” my heart says, “seek [God’s] face!”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!”

Now the enemy lives inside. The true battle rages along the faultlines of the heart. What do I believe about who I am? Will God abandon me like everyone else? Will I be alone forever? Are the broken relationships in my life reflections of the reality that my relationship with God will always stay beyond repair? The struggle to trust is real.

Suddenly the other shoe drops. Even the psalmist’s family has abandoned her.

Sometimes, the best we can do is to share our hope precisely when we aren’t sure if it’s true. When we cannot say, “I know that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” but only, “I believe…” When we can only say, “help my unbelief.”

I know many of us have been in this place. I have. Broken familial relationships, the looming sense of perpetual abandonment. Though we like to pretend that the teenage years contain the bulk of parent-child distance, the truth cannot be denied: most of us feel abandoned by those we love at multiple points over the course of our lives. Sometimes the roles are reversed; parents sense that their children are out of reach, bonds have been severed. I have noticed this most among the aged and infirm. And, of course, distance strikes all kinds of relationships: lovers, mentors, friends. Forsakenness is no respecter of age, class, gender, race, sexual preference, success, or failure.

The same holds true for our relationship with God. Few of us who have maintained a relationship with God over the course of our lives can claim to have never felt God’s absence. In fact, many of those who at some point experienced radical intimacy with God have also encountered the sting of forsakenness. It is now an open secret that Mother Teresa, after clearly hearing a call from God early in life, spent 50 years, the rest of her life, feeling abandoned. “The place of God in my soul is blank,” she wrote, “There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God. … The torture and pain I can’t explain.”2 In her words, we hear the cry of that other great psalm: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). And we hear the echo of Jesus on the cross.

And yet. Yet.

“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord.” (27:13-14)

The psalm ends in hope. But this hope is true hope—hope in the unseen. This is trust in the midst of desperation.

Hope cannot be legislated. It cannot be commanded. It cannot be force fed through doctrine or memorization. It can only be witnessed to.

How often I have longed to plug my soul into the soul of a hurting person, so that they can experience the hope that I hold with feeble fingers and quaking heart. The elderly parishioner who calls me and lets slip in the middle of conversation that Valentine’s Day was so hard this year—three years since the passing of her husband of 60 years. She just wanted to talk to someone. The parent who admits that he just does not understand why his daughter is doing what she’s doing. He can’t get through to her. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen. The teenager who tells us at the end of youth group, after everyone else has gone, that their parents threw them out of their house, because of who they are, who they love, and who they are becoming. The toddler who cannot stop crying because her Mama and Daddy just walked out the door without her. She doesn’t know that they’ll be back in two hours. Maybe they won’t.

How often I have longed to give them my hope, like a spiritual blood transfusion. How often, when I have been in this place, have I longed for someone to lend their hope to me.

This is why it is so important to share honestly about our struggles as well as our gratitude. We never know who is listening. This is why worship that is truly intergenerational is so important. People in all walks of life listen in on each other’s joys and struggles, hearing echoes of their own lives and reminders that life is not always the way it is now. This is why some of the most wonderful moments in my experience with young people have come when we have gone to visit shut-ins, or people in group houses and shelters for those cast out of their homes.

Sometimes, the best we can do is to share our hope precisely when we aren’t sure if it’s true. When we cannot say, “I know that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” but only, “I believe…” When we can only say, “help my unbelief.”

For it is an article of our faith that there is nowhere we can be where God has not been. Jesus not only screamed Psalm 22, he also went straight to hell. We claim this in the Apostle’s Creed. We find the same affirmation in Psalm 139: “If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” (139:8) So, as Andy Gullahorn, one of my favorite singer-songwriters put it, “even hell is not a God-forsaken place.”* I want to believe it.

Song Recommendations:

*I cannot recommend Andy Gullahorn’s music enough. Like no other artist I know, for the last couple of albums, he has explored the dynamics of God’s presence and absence with poetic sensibility and pastoral force. His songs are not readily singable for the congregation, but I highly recommend them for devotional times or to prompt group discussion. In addition to “Even Hell Is Not a God-forsaken Place,” I would encourage you to listen through his albums Beyond the Frame and Faultlines. The one-two punch of the songs “Nowhere to Be Found” and “Grand Canyon” at the end of Beyond the Frame have been my companions during difficult times over the last few years. Faultiness is an album that every pastor, youth worker, or caring Christ-follower should have on repeat. It reminds me of the life God calls us to follow. I’m not always in quite the same place as Gullahorn theologically, but we’re pretty darn close, and I love him for the pure honesty of his writing.

Now for the songs that congregations can sing together. You’ll notice that this week’s songs come heavily from two sources. Both the Enter the Worship Circle group and the Community at Taizé have a way of capturing both the longing and the hope of this psalm in music and lyric that I haven’t been able to discover elsewhere.

Taizé, The Lord Is My Light – The heavy mystery imbuing the music turns this affirmation into a plea for belief. Sung in canon, the chant echoes and echoes into the soul. I have sometimes whispered this song to myself when I am afraid. The second line “in HIM I trust,” can easily be replaced with “in God I trust.”

Taizé, Wait for the Lord – Once again, through chant, what might be overly hopeful or ring false at the end of the Psalm becomes a plaintive and sincere prayer. Wait for the Lord. Sing with or without solo.

Enter the Worship Circle, Land of the Living – This song leans more heavily on the confidence in God’s presence. It rejoices in the beauty of God’s presence.

Enter the Worship Circle, Wait on the Lord – Sometimes hope needs to be shouted, a dance of defiance against impossible situations. This song does that. I love this song deeply, and so have struggled with the gendered-language. I have sometimes sung this song with these words instead:

Wait on the Lord, oh, my soul
Wait on the Lord, oh, my soul
Wait on the Lord, oh, my soul
Be strong and take heart
Be strong and wait upon the Lord
Who is beautiful and good
Who’s a lover and a friend
Who has rescued us before
And who will rescue us again
Who is faithful and true
Who is loving and just
Surely God will deliver us

Gungor, You Have Me – Gungor writes poetry, both musically and lyrically. Their songs are deceptively simple and endlessly expressive. This song hits the core of Psalm 27. No need to hit the falsetto when singing with a congregation, though.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child – When it is good to lament, to express the depth of abandonment, no song pulls out the forsakenness of Psalm 27:10 better than this spiritual. This version is by Odetta.

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Footnotes:

1. Rolf A. Jacobson, in Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament), (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 267.
2. An excerpt from her posthumously published book Come, Be My Light. She never meant for these journals to be published, so I am sometimes reticent to reference them. At the same time, I know that acknowledging experiences of God’s absence can be powerful and healing for those who otherwise hide behind a “happy church face.” Because her experiences are now very public knowledge, I draw attention to them for the sake of those for whom God has never felt very close. Here’s an article about the book.

 

Hong

Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.

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