Forsaken, Afflicted, and Waiting: An Advent prayer from Psalm 22

The church season of Advent and twenty-first century American Christmas happen roughly at the same time but are polar opposites.

If we read Luke’s telling of the coming of the Messiah we get a vivid picture of what people were longing for in the days preceding God’s incarnation. It had very little to do with a generalized cheeriness and bargains on electronics.

The kind of salvation longed for was the fixing of a world gone badly wrong. Mary, Zechariah, Simeon sing songs of hope for things to be upended, the tables of injustice to be overturned. Longing for God’s justice and righteousness in the world only makes sense when we allow ourselves to be confronted with the depths of the depravity of our world right now. Then we can hope for, wait for, anticipate God’s “adventing” or coming to us.

And yet my life is too comfortable to understand Advent viscerally. I have had experiences that have put me in the depths of despair but I’m not there now. I can rest content in my comfort or I can remember what it’s like to live inside the fractures of a broken world. I can put myself in a position of empathy for those that are there now.

Some are in the depths of tending to a sick child that may not get better. I can remember when that was me and care for them out of that memory.

Some are in the depths of being hurt and abandoned by people they trusted. I can remember when that was me and care for them out of that memory.

Some find themselves unable to buy enough groceries to feed their children healthy food. I can remember when that was me and care for them out of that memory.

 

Some are suffering in ways that I haven’t experienced. I can listen to their stories, seek to understand their struggles, and work toward healing where it’s in the limited range of my power, praying and hoping for complete healing in their lives.

Some have their lives and identities used as punching bags to stoke fear and hatred so that a few can build their own wealth and power. I can care enough to listen to their stories and let them guide my empathy and action.

Some women are in crisis pregnancies, caught in a world that idolizes both sex and children while caring little for the social and interpersonal commitments each warrants. I can care enough to listen to their stories and let them guide my empathy and action.

Some have seen their people pressed down and crushed for decades or centuries. I can care enough to listen to their stories and let them guide my empathy and action.

These have never been me. I can still care.

 

I have found that praying the psalms puts me inside the world of people whose experiences are unlike my own. Sometimes they speak to my life right now, sometimes they don’t. But getting outside myself is critical to loving God and loving my neighbors. So I sometimes repeatedly pray psalms that are foreign to where I am right now.

The soundless video below is an experiment, using my very limited motion graphic skills, to communicate some of the things I’ve come across by repeatedly praying a psalm. Reading a psalm as a prayer, slowly taking on each word or phrase as my own, helps me to inhabit the words, especially when done repeatedly over several days or weeks. I begin to get a feel for the rhythm of the poetry and the structure of the story that’s being told. As a musician, I begin to get a feel for shifts in key, where the words feel like they could shift from a minor key to its relative major key — or vice versa. Sometimes I begin to imagine two or more independent melodies being brought together into a point/counterpoint conversation.

The culture and language in which the psalms were written is quite different from my own. Just as it takes a while for me to put myself inside the rhythm and structure of a psalm, it takes a while to put myself inside the words and images.

I often need to understand where the imagery is coming from and then adapt it to images that make sense in my world. My enemies have never lined up armies ready to attack me. On my commute to work I don’t generally fear attack from wild animals. We’ve created a world that’s safe from things that most of the world has always feared yet live at risk of whole new forms of harm. Translating the psalms for prayer sometimes requires updating the imagery.

Sometimes we’ve damaged the words in the psalms beyond recognition. Our versions of “justice” and “salvation” and “love”  tend to be much more narrow than those of the psalmists. Sometimes the Hebrew words don’t have English equivalents and require a constellation of words to get the idea across, such as hesed which is translated variously as mercy, loving-kindness, and (my favorite) steadfast love.

Psalm 22 begins with the well-known and gut wrenching “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and includes other elements that connect to the cross. It’s not usually associated with Advent but I’ve found it helpful in my efforts to resist the numbing context of our world and open myself up to the depths of expectation of the Incarnation. Below I have used the motion graphic video format to experiment with the linguistic imagery, with the translation of single words into a constellation of words, with the arrangement of the words on the screen, with the rhythm of the poetry. I’m trying to put onto the screen a bit of what’s going on in my head as I live in the psalm.

Let me know if it helps you (or not) in your waiting, and feel free to share it.

 

Does this raise any questions or concerns for you?

How do you connect to the psalms in general or Psalm 22 in particular?

How is your waiting going?

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  • Lauren Graeber

    Does it help? Yes! I love to sing the psalms but I lose myself in the music or allow the music to drive my emotional response. Here, the silence leaves me the space in my head to experience the words more authentically. There is despair when the light box on the side fades after the first time. I now know what that means, what’s coming, and thus I’m primed for the pain and sorrow expressed between the moments in the light.Then the expansion of the light box feels like so much more a promise or a full community claiming of the promise. This is incredible.

    • kwfoster

      Thanks so much for engaging with this, Lauren. As you mentioned, the silence was a central part of what I found in this psalm. I found that this medium allowed me to slow down my reading and add space, keeping me from rushing headlong through the psalm with a superficial reading that would leave me untouched by its narrative.

  • Che Russell

    Extremely powerful…thank you for sharing;) God is good through you:)