Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Psalm 42:5
The trouble with so called rhetorical questions is that they invite answers, whether that’s intended or not.
The psalmist is talking to himself, questioning himself. Why indeed is he “downcast”? Why is his soul “so disturbed” within him? No doubt he could think of plenty of possible answers.
And so no doubt can we if we find ourselves asking the same kind of questions…
“Well, here in the UK we have just had a referendum about our membership of the European Union, and it’s ended with a whole load of bitterness, hatred, division and anger. Already there have been reports of racial attacks and other nastiness in different parts of the country. Could we be heading for serious violence in the streets…?”
“Oh, and our main political parties are in a state of disarray, one of them certainly and the other very likely soon to be looking for a new leader. All right, I wasn’t that keen on the leaders we had before, but the new possibilities leave me seriously worried…”
“And then there’s the American presidential election…”
Depending on what part of the world you live in, you may be overwhelmed by other horrors which make the things I’ve mentioned seem quite tame: hunger; war; terrorism; grinding poverty; social injustice which just gets worse and worse, never better.
Why wouldn’t our souls be downcast within us!
I’ve lived quite a long time now, and I have to say that I can’t remember a time when the fixed points in life, the things one feels able to take for granted, have seemed so shaky.
As a child at school I remember vaguely picking up something of the fear and anxiety surrounding the Bay of Pigs episode and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1961 and 1962) between America and the Soviet Union, when nuclear war seemed a distinct possibility. Was it possible the human race could actually self-destruct? And the answer seemed to be: Well, actually, yes…
The prophet Isaiah spoke of “the shaking of the foundations of the earth” (24:18). All security taken away; dark uncertainties louring over us. And isn’t it a little like that today?
Is this how you’re feeling? Well, if it is, be thankful for the honesty of the Bible. Remember not only psalmist here, but also Jesus himself: “Now my heart is troubled…” (John 12:27); “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). There is no dark place we can enter where he has not been before.
When the very foundations seem to be shaking, what are we to do?
Well, the psalmist gives the answer to his own question: “Put your hope in God…” (Psalm 42:5 and 11, Psalm 43:5).
And a little further on, in Psalm 46, quite possibly the same psalmist expands further on this theme: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea… though the mountains quake…” (that shaking of the foundations again!).
He even dares to put words – but what wonderful words – into the mouth of God: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations (that’s a promise!), I will be exalted in the earth (so trust me!)” (Psalm 46:10).
Yes, it seems it’s possible to be “still” even when the very earth is shaking.
But let’s not forget that there are different kinds of stillness. There is the stillness of inactivity and even despair, where we slump, shrug our shoulders, fold our arms and say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do, is there?” That is not the kind of stillness the psalmist is talking about.
No, he is talking – though it’s a paradox – about an active stillness, a stillness that looks squarely into the face of insecurity and fear and, by faith, takes it head-on. This is a stillness that sets out to confront evil with good, to replace anger with calm, to show love where there is hate, to encourage unity where there is division.
It’s the stillness that Jesus showed before those who hated him and crucified him.
Pray to have that kind of stillness – because, who knows, as tempers rise and people lose control it might be needed in your local high street or pub… or perhaps outside your local mosque or temple or synagogue.
Lord God, make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred let me bring your love; where there is injury, your pardon, Lord, and where there’s doubt, true faith in you.
Make me a channel of your peace. Where there’s despair in life, let me bring hope, where there is darkness, only light , and where there’s sadness, ever joy.
Make me a channel of your peace. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, in giving to all men that we receive, and in dying that we’re born to eternal life.
Oh, Master, grant that I may never seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love with all my soul.
Make me a channel of your peace… Amen. Amen!