It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.-Tom Stoppard, Arcadia
As a hospice chaplain, you could say I’ve been a long-term student of suffering. And suffering can source its location to the physical, emotional and spiritual. Much spiritual suffering occurs when a paradigm shift is being forced onto a person. For a patient on hospice, this suffering can come about due to an expectational truth closely held (and how many of these do we hold that never enter our conscious mind?) that will no longer be true. Perhaps the patient recently retired and planned to travel the world with their wife for the next ten years. Perhaps it’s a young mother who grieves that she will not watch her children grow up. Or the spouse who thought her loved one was doing fine until a trip to the ER exposes Stage 4 Lung Cancer.
Spiritual suffering is not exclusive to end-of-life care. I have witnessed countless friends who grew up with a certain version of Christianity, only to discover it no longer fits comfortably. The story goes something like this: Said friend was taught certain tenets within a Christian branch and felt strong connections to this particular tribe. Then some major life event occurs, or they observe a discordant disconnect between what they were taught and how the world operates, or a pastor or some other leader in the congregation ended up not living in accordance to what they taught.
And the free fall begins. Because the ground collapsed from under us.
It felt strong and firm and durable.
Faith was not supposed to have a seismic shift.
It feels tragic. It hurts. We feel alone.
But we’re not.
Faith (and Christian faith specifically) has historically been marked by shifts.
If I were to provide one critique of contemporary American churches, it is their dearth of opening up the biggest book of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.
Right in the heart of Scripture is a big book of songs and poems commonly referred to as the Psalms. It’s the stuff of life and anchors us into what a raw and honest human relationship with God actually looks like.
I’m not quite sure why Christian congregations appear to neglect these poems, outside of a memorial service. Perhaps narrative stories are more in vogue, or perhaps direct teachings from Jesus or Paul’s letters are the practical and short soundbites we desire as we attempt to live more meaningful lives.
Poems aren’t easily accessible. They take time and mental energy.
Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar extraordinaire, separates these songs and poems into three categories: Orientation, Disorientation, and New Orientation.
The best way I can explain it: Orientation are the truths we subscribe to—truths about God, humans and life. Disorientation occurs when those truths no longer hold up due to a life event or paradigm shift. New Orientation is the new ground we discover after leaning into the suffering of Disorientation. We don’t stay in Disorientation forever; We ultimately discover new truths and shed the old truths that no longer snugly fit.
These Psalms of Disorientation(which are the lion share of Psalms) cry out, they want God to do horrible things to their enemies, and they even question if God is there and listening. They’re harsh and brazen and uncomfortably honest. They expose humanity for all its ugliness and remind us a life lived in connection with God is not always “our best life”. They attempt to make sense of an event and God’s action or lack of action.
Yes, Christianity is conventionally known and referred to as a set of beliefs. Beliefs ARE important, but if it’s just beliefs, we miss a primary piece of Christian faith – an ongoing and sustained connection with God that exists in all seasons of life. It’s the prayer for more grace I whisper under my breath when my children need my attention and I have nothing left to give. It’s the screaming alone in my car when a young mother and acquaintance is dying of cancer. It’s the request for wisdom when I meet with someone going through a difficult time. And it’s the pleading for God to ride down from the mountain and save the town because we’re just a mess right now.
Shallow truths are traded in for deeper truths only through time and living. But truth is not meant to be purely cerebral. Truth is not devoid of relationship; Truth is discovered because of relationship. For the writers of the Psalms, their connection with God remained. Their understanding of God and life, out of that sustained connection, shifted.
And history repeats itself.