This is my column for this month’s church newsletter:
Dr. Rodney Duke, my former college professor, was fond of saying, “My favorite thing about the book of Psalms is that these poets say things that would get you kicked out of church.” I think he’s right. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Psalm 88.
Many of the psalms are brutally honest about hard times and hard feelings in life, but most of them resolve with a statement of joy or praise at the end. The notable exception to this rule is Psalm 88. It ends with the chilling phrase, “darkness is my closest friend.”
The popular conception of spirituality in our culture is that it will make you into a happy, well-adjusted, and peaceful person. When many people hear the term “spirituality”, they picture someone sitting serenely in the lotus position, chanting “all shall be well” over and over again. Such a people are either lost in the exercise of “navel-gazing” or else wandering around with their heads in the clouds. Seeing them, one can understand why Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the masses”.
True spirituality, as I have come to understand it, enables its practitioners to honestly face the darkness of life without reverting to fantasy as a crutch. It can ask God, with the author of Psalm 88, “Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?” Such people don’t often think of themselves as particularly religious or spiritual, yet their authenticity speaks for itself. They are in a privileged position to discover, with the author of Psalm 51, that God has little to no interest in those who go through the motions of religion in order to “look spiritual” to others. In fact, God has little interest in religion itself. Psalm 51 says, “You do not delight in sacrifice or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, O God, will not despise.”
Those broken souls who often feel (or appear to be) farthest from the life of religion are often the ones who are most ready to be honest about themselves. If the ministry of Jesus taught us anything, it is that these broken hearts are welcomed by God. When we finally get real enough to say, “darkness is my closest friend”, we put ourselves in a position to find the presence of our Eternal Friend within the darkness itself. Only then do we begin to see a way out. Only then are we ready to hear the answer to the question, “Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?”
I dare to posit that, in such a moment, an inaudible voice whispers back to us through that darkness: “Yes.”