“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me?
O my God, I cry, but you do not answer.
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved.
But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised.
You are my God, do not be far from me.” “
Psalm 22: 1-155
The ancient voices of the Bible express different moments in the human condition, times of loss and questioning, times of utter assurance of God’s presence and love. There is much to explore in the complexity of these texts and the intensity of emotion they express. We see that in the 22nd psalm. I am struck by the line “I am a worm.” How awful and unworthy the psalmist must have felt to write that, and the psalmist complains that God is far away. It echoes similar sentiments expressed in the book of Job. He feels God’s absence and questions God about why he is suffering.
Like Job or the psalmist, there are times in our own lives when we may think that God has abandoned us. When we hear the cancer diagnosis or get the call about a loved one in an accident, we ask, how can this happen? When we look at the world around us, the desolation at Ground Zero or the devastation in Kabul, Baghdad or Indonesia or any number of other disasters, the loss of innocent life and the suffering of those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time leads us to wonder, where is God in all this? We are challenged to absorb the news without losing our trust in God. Like the Psalmist who cries out “God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me?” And Job who said “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.” The writers are lamenting their sense of God’s absence in trying times. In difficult circumstances how do we see God’s presence? We can find some inspiration in the story of Job. Job expresses his hopeful persistence in the midst of intense suffering and loss. Rather than resignation, Job embodies continued faithfulness to his belief in a gracious God and to his belief in his own innocence. Job may be the ultimate optimist. He never gave up on God or stopped believing, no matter how awful things got.
Optimism, a positive attitude in the midst of hard times, can make all the difference. Today I wanted to explore with you being stewards of our attitudes. We have been learning about being good stewards of our families and last week we focused on being mindful of our time. This week, inspired by Job, I invite you to focus on how you can pay attention to and take care of your attitude. How can we cultivate an attitude that will help us to open ourselves to our strengths and the strengths of our faith so that we can endure in the smallest of stresses or the most difficult of circumstances? I know for myself that sometimes it feels like my attitude is taking over me. I focus on all that is going wrong instead of what is going right. Especially in the midst of challenges, being negative can be easier than being positive, but if we can choose to be positive we may find strength and endurance that we never knew we had.
There are many stories of people who have achieved incredible goals because of their strong faith and positive attitudes in the face of adversity. I recently read the book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor. In the book he describes his experiences in concentration camps and how he survived. He wrote, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” He also observed that, “When we are no longer able to change a situation – just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer – we are challenged to change ourselves… Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.” What a powerful testimony to the human capacity for hope and triumph in the most awful conditions, and he attributes this to attitude. Can we, who face significantly less suffering than a concentration camp, also dare to choose our attitudes to make the best out of the life we have to live?
There is another powerful piece of scripture that offers words of encouragement for times of struggle, Romans chapter 5. It reads “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” This is such an inspiring passage. It invites us to see that even while going through something bad we can find something good. We can build our character, persevere and hope. In reality all of that takes work, hard work, and the right attitude. It takes an attitude of openness to the possibilities unseen rather than an attitude of negativity and denial of the brighter future that may come or the blessings that are already there.
God tested Job. He lost everything, suffered as much as it is possible to imagine suffering, losing his fortune and family, his possessions and his health. The Bible says “Then Job fell on the ground and worshiped God. He said, ‘the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing.” Despite all of his suffering he chose to worship God. In the midst of our own suffering we do not often choose to praise or worship God. It is hard to see challenge as a character-building experience. We question God and we pray to God to change things but we don’t usually praise God. More often the response to suffering is to get angry. It can be very hard to move past the anger and have a positive attitude about what is happening.
I want to share with you a personal experience. Five years ago I was diagnosed with macular degeneration. This is a degenerative eye condition which means I am slowly losing my central vision. The good news is, it is only my central vision. My peripheral vision is fine. I am not going blind but the condition does make things like reading and driving more difficult. At the age of 30, I see about as well as an 80-year- old. When I was diagnosed I’ll admit I got really angry. I did not see this as a character-building experience. I felt abandoned by God. I felt like life was unfair to be in my 20’s and losing my sight. I tell you this not to make you worried about me, because I am honestly doing very well, but to share an experience of struggle, hope and the difference a positive attitude can make. I went through a time when I was very negative. I thought God was unfairly punishing me. I wrestled with confusion and doubt, but beyond the anger and grief I have discovered an inner strength I never knew I had. I have a deeper sense of gratitude for what a blessing life is, and I am so grateful for the love and support that others have offered. I have found a greater capacity for compassion. It can be hard to keep a positive attitude about the situation. I don’t want to sugar coat this and make it seem like I’m saying it’s all roses when you have a positive attitude, but honestly it helps with the thorns. There is so much of life that is good, so many blessings to be grateful for. As it says in the Desiderata “With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Strive to be happy.”
No life is without hardships. At some point we all face the question of why there is suffering and pain. I know that you too have faced some kind of challenge, whether it is an injury or illness, the unexpected loss of a loved one, the loss of a job or home, and you may also have gotten angry and wondered why. You too may have felt like life isn’t fair. It is my hope that in talking about and sharing our suffering or challenges, it lessens the burden, and when we are lightened we are free to embrace a positive attitude and see the brighter picture. I have found comfort in the words of scripture. There is also a reading from The Prophet that I would like to share with you. “Then a woman said, Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow. And The Prophet answered: Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come. You are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy. Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced. When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.” What a good reminder. Can you think of something that has caused you both sorrow and joy? I invite you in your times of challenge and pain to see the possibility of any good that might also balance it. I have experienced the power of a positive attitude, the power of hope. It is real that there are times that our despair or depression does not let us hope but if we find a way past those clouds we can choose to believe in the overall goodness of life whatever it may be and to see life in all its fullness as the gift that it is.
I have not found an answer to the question of why we suffer but I know that if we cannot answer the question of why we suffer we can at least choose how. When we choose our attitudes and don’t just let them choose us, when we look for the good alongside the bad, we find reasons to get up every morning and make the most out of every day. Sometimes all we can do is wait with one another in the hope that change will come and know that in the meantime we are not alone in whatever we are going through. That is one of the greatest blessings of church. It reminds us we are never alone because of God’s love for us and because of our commitment to care for one another as a church family. Let us choose an attitude of gratitude for one another, gratitude for the life we have been given, even with its ups and downs. Let us praise our ever present God who knows the workings of the world even if we cannot and let us have faith enough to endure, to build character and to hope. Amen.