You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend. (Psalm 88:18)
They are tearing down the building across the street from the church. I’ve never really noticed this structure, that is, before I started seeing it’s insides from the outside. Living and working in the city does this to you. You can be surrounded by things you never see until you can’t not see them. The second floor room in this picture, with the paper towel dispenser by the sink, I find it particularly heartbreaking for some reason. I’m not sure why—maybe it’s because all the news lately, the feeling that everything seems to be falling to pieces before our eyes. This building seems like a victim of violence, as we witness this ripping apart of a space that someone once inhabited. Doorways that people hovered in as they waited for an answer to a question, walls on which hung things that were beautiful or meaningful, stairwells where people could sneak out to lunch early. (I think it was an office building.) Of course, I’ve never stepped foot inside—I have no idea what kind of people inhabited it or what shape it was in to garner the demolition or what new thing is planned for that lot—but somehow watching it be torn apart, brick-by-brick, feels painful right now.
When construction sites start to make you feel emotional, it might be time to pray.
It occurred to me, as I was reflecting on this demolition project: how we build things up and tear them down, how capable we are at leaving marks on this planet, on each other, and how God might feel about that. In this world of disposablity and constant change, I wonder: is it too late to take care of this place, of each other? With so much lost, so much broken, how do we do that?
Somehow newness became synonomous with hope in our culture. We’ve all experienced the feeling of unwrapping a new phone, for example. Are you ever slow to take off the plastic film protecting the screen? Do you save the perfectly sized box it came in, even though it has served its purpose? You know you are going to have to unpackage it and get to using it, regardless of your fears of screens cracking and permanent scratches you’ll soon leave on it. And yet, what gives you solace if you do drop it or lose it or damage it beyond repair? There are more and better phones, to be had...for a low monthly fee of ____.
I imagine God with the shiny new earth spinning in the cosmos, protective film just removed, not a single leaf out of place. I believe that God knows that handing it over to us means its demise. Slow and subtle at first, but faster and faster (it seems these days) God’s beautiful creation is ripped apart—there are carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, white supremacists shooting at synagogues, towers tumbling to the ground. But God gave us this planet anyway; God gave us each other. We seek meaning in office spaces and on the internet, in churches, mosques and temples, and we manage to sometimes get along well enough to plant gardens and build cities. Sometimes we don’t and innocent people die. We are ripped open. It feels irreparable, permanent, scarring.
I re-read Psalm 88 this week, because I remembered it was one of those lament Psalms that can help in times like these. Do you ever dread the sweetness of the Bible in moments of suffering? When you’re in pain, the verses like “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1) or “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” (Psalm 23:4), can feel sacchrarine-sweet and empty. It can leave one asking really hard questions: “So, if this is true, where were you, God?” Or “Why would you let that happen?” Even the lament Psalms always seem to be turning hopeful by their end, sometimes before I’m even ready.
But here’s what I remembered this week: Psalm 88 does not finish with hope. The last verse is at the top of this post: “You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend.” Mic drop. This I can stomach. The fact that this Psalm is in The Bible—a Psalm full of quite colorful language of complaint and anger directed at God, and placed along with all the hopeful ones—this tells me that God can handle our stuff in these moments. We don’t have to censor our prayers. We can cry out in questions, frustrations, doubts, anger—God can handle it.
There’s no way we can repair all that is broken. There is not a low monthly fee we can pay for a new planet or a way to bring all those who have died back. But, in these times, I find it consoling that we have a God who weeps with us and doesn’t smite the honest Psalmist. The Prophet Isaiah said, “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3) In my faith tradition, Jesus is referred to as the “Man of Sorrows” and to know that he was sad and full of grief, and at the very same time, full of grace, truth, and mirth—that’s one of the biggest reasons I choose to follow Him. He’s real. He does care, enough to cry and enough to die (even when it is we who have killed him). He is as disappointed as we are at the condition of things down here.
When we are ready for hope, it is waiting for us. (Spoiler alert: “Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5) Maybe it would be more palpable if we really understood it for what it was. Maybe when we read of God “making all things new” it will be less like opening a new iPhone and more like watching a building be razed to its foundations, and rebuilt across the street. It will be a newness found through healing, and healing can be arduous work. Our faith makes space for the important and impossible process of grieving, saying goodbye, and letting go. It makes space for piles of ruble and empty chairs at family dinners. We can ask God to hurry to make things new while we, in the same breath, cry with sobs deeper than words about the loss of all the old. That’s where I am right now, how about you?