[Thomas McKenzie here. I’d like to introduce you to my friend Chance Perdue. We’ve known each other for some years now, and he’s the youth minister at our church. On Good Friday this year, I asked Chance to give one of the seven meditations during a service called The Seven Last Words. It’s a three-hour-long vigil during which we ponder the sentences Jesus spoke while on the Cross. I loved what Chance had to say, and I commend it to you here as a RR post. I hope it’s a blessing to you.]
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus knew these ancient words long before he was hoisted up onto the instrument of his execution. How many times had he chanted them in the Temple, around the table with his family at Shabbos, in the silence of his own heart? They are the cry of David from Psalm 22, and any Jewish boy would have learned the Psalter at an early age. So when Jesus cries out in agony from the cross, it’s as much a well worn prayer as it is a doubt in the presence of the Divine—there’s no need to assume that you can’t do both at the same time.
There are moments when the Scriptures we’ve heard over and over again become the truest way for us to express our hopes, our hurts, our fears. I imagine this was true for Jesus throughout his life, but especially so on the cross. His broken and dying heart became a vessel that only Psalm 22 could fill. But he isn’t the only one. Very recently, I saw that same cry of David and King Jesus come alive right in front of me. And yes, it was painful.
Last week I got a call from Mom. “Hank is on his way out. They found the cancer just a few days ago. It’s been growing for years and it’s aggressive and could you and your brother please come. They’ve removed all monitors and the feeding tube, according to his wishes, and it’s only a matter of time until nature takes it’s toll. He’s going to lay here and starve to death.”
I made the necessary arrangements, packed a light bag, drove to the airport to pick up my brother, and we headed for North Carolina. From the moment I received the call, I’d been thinking about Hank. His life is full of outlandish tales, and my mind went immediately to the many stories of faith he used to tell about a great grandmother. “Grandma would pray, and things would happen,” he used to say. Suddenly, I could hear the words of David from that old psalm: “Our forefathers put their trust in you; they trusted, and you delivered them.” This was going to be an interesting trip.
On top of the sadness, the whole situation was tense and awkward. Hank has spent the last few years of his life, inexplicably pushing away those who love him the most. A few months ago, he formally disowned my brother over the phone. So you can imagine the feelings of my dear brother, ever the cynic, as we drove into the night. He was less than cordial, dreading the whole scene, certain that we’d all be forced into a “come to Jesus” moment over this dying man’s body, and he was having none of it. It seemed unreal to him, disingenuous. And again, in the back of my mind, I heard the psalm: “they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying, ‘He trusted in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, if he delights in him.’”
After some hours of driving, we made it to the solace center in Asheville. The other side of the family was already there. They’ve spent most of Hank’s life draining his billfold and casting him aside when the money runs out. We are not friends. As my brother and I made our way into Hank’s room, we saw them first. I admit that they looked to me like vultures gathered around the bed, and the psalm went on: “They stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing.”
When the group of people spread, we saw him. He was a thinned out suggestion of the man I knew. It was terribly disturbing to see him lying in this place, his emaciated frame twisted this way and that, his head back and mouth open as if crying out to the ceiling. It looked like his limp body had just been dumped there, but once again David said it better than I could: “I am poured out like water; all my bones are out of joint; my heart within my breast is melting wax.”
We spent the rest of the night and the next day at his bedside, taking turns holding his hand and talking to him. The nurse assured everyone that he could hear us—I’m still not sure if that’s true. It was fairly somber until my brother and I got everyone laughing, telling wild stories about Hank and all his funny antics. I kept wondering absent-mindedly when someone would feed him, then I would remember. Through it all, he mostly lay there with his mouth open, his breathing labored. You can’t give food or water to a dying person, as it only does more harm. The only “relief” you can give them is wetting their lips every so often, using little moisteners from the drawer next to the bed. As I sat beside him, using this little tool to give a tiny gift of water to his dry lips, I heard it again: “My mouth is dried out like a pot-sherd; my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; and you have laid me in the dust of the grave.”
On Saturday, we took his hand, said our goodbyes, and my brother and I headed back toward Nashville. It was strange to drive away, knowing that I’d seen my grandpa for the last time. We tried to talk and laugh as much as we could during the trip, but long and uninterrupted silences kept getting in the way. Death is such a bothersome thing—not like a fly in the kitchen or an untied shoelace, but a bother that’s hard to get at, hard to work out. Why is it that no matter the passion we bring to the table, we all end up splayed out on a sterilized bed, helpless and feeble? It is the great injustice of this universe, and there’s nothing we can do about it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on how I felt or what I needed to say.
We got back to my house late on Saturday night and made it to church the next morning to wave our palm fronds and whatnot. I admit, this year the cry of Hosanna felt more like a funeral dirge than a triumphal announcement. Things just felt a little out of place for most of the day. Then, on Monday, as I sat in my office studying, it came full circle. I saw my grandfather’s life spread across years and miles. I saw the hurt and frustration of a failed marriage, a retirement lost, the abandonment that he faced from so many, the abandonment he measured out toward others. I saw him lying there in that bed, unable to speak, unable to think coherently, unable to make amends. Then the words of David became his words, my words, our words: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
I’ve spent more than my fair share of time and research on these words, but it’s a different thing altogether when you can no longer analyze them because they’ve begun to well up deep inside of you. For better or worse, the feeling of abandonment, fear of isolation, and utter injustice of this planet is part of what it means to be alive. In all likelihood we will each of us feel it rise from within at one time or another.
This is the point of Scripture—it’s the description of human experience, handed down to us from our forebears. There really is nothing new under the sun. The fear, the confusion, the hurt has all been felt before, and these sacred words testify to that truth. But it’s more than that. In these very old words, we also hear the story of the One who is truly man and truly God, walking among us, feeling our joy, taking on our abandonment and despair as his own. The Word through whom all things were made humbles Himself and allows the very human and broken words of mortals to become the cry of his own infinite heart. And that changes everything. See, it means that no matter how abandoned, how hurt, or how utterly god-forsaken we may feel, it’s okay. To cry out with David, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” is no act of unfaithfulness, because Jesus cries out with us from the agony of the Cross. He has touched the deepest and darkest parts of humanity, and that is Good News indeed. And even if we can’t see the light when we cry out in despair, that’s okay too. Sometimes our forsakenness is so deep that it can only follow us from the hospital bed to the grave, where it must wait in the silence and darkness of the tomb. But Jesus has been there, too. Amen.