Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. Psalm 130:2b-2c
While in seminary I pored over the writings of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. He is, perhaps, one of the most captivating early English preachers. Most of the pictures I’ve seen of him portray a big statured, portly man with a big beard, looking every bit affable, approachable, and prolific. And yet, what I didn’t notice then, but find important now, is that Spurgeon, while in the trenches of ministry, was frequently plunged into severe depression that at times lasted weeks or even months.
“On one occasion, he wrote an explanation to his congregation as to why he could not fill the pulpit the previous Sunday. He said, ‘I am as a potter’s vessel when it is utterly broken, useless and laid aside. Nights of watching and days of weeping have been mine, but I hope the cloud is passing.’” In a biography of this vulnerable pastor, Arnold Dallimore wrote, “What he suffered in those times of darkness we may not know . . . even his desperate calling on God brought no relief. ‘There are dungeons,’ he said, ‘beneath the castles of despair.’”
“Dungeons beneath the castles of despair.” That is rock bottom. That is in the pit of depression. That is in the depths. And Spurgeon’s story brings our Psalm 130 scripture to mind. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.”
We have been in a tough season, a year of heartache and hurt. We’ve been in the “dungeons beneath the castles of despair.” We’ve been crying out from the depths. We’ve been depressed. We’ve been so far down in the dumps that we’ve felt like there’s no way out. And what we find in Psalm 130 is that our desperate cries, no matter how soul crushingly deep, will be heard by the God of mercy. We are not alone.
In fact, I feel like no one has escaped experiencing some type of depression these days. Amanda’s been talking with some of her mom friends from across the country and they have all mentioned how depressed they are. They’ve been social distancing and staying isolated for so long that they have finally reached a point where they say they don’t feel like themselves. They don’t feel comfortable in their own skin. They are depressed and sad and angry and lonely. One first time mother who went through the same horrific medical pregnancy experience as Amanda sobbingly agreed that she, too, was in the depths. She said, “That’s it. I’ve lost my fun. My fun’s gone.”
And so here we are in Lent, trying to find a way to get ready for Easter, to get ready for new life and resurrection. But we aren’t there yet. And as we peel back the layers on Psalm 130, the poet calls out to God from the depths of human suffering, straining and hoping for God to hear. In fact, I believe the author is insisting, even expecting, that God listens to our cries of lament, hears our hurting hearts. The psalmist anticipates that God will hear and respond to every cry of pain, because mercy, the writer claims, is who God is.
As we explored the first verse of Psalm 130 last week, we were struck with the psalm’s similarity to own lives and our daily experiences. The psalmist cried out to God from “the depths,” from the darkest and deepest abyss of human suffering and pain. That abyss feels different for us today than it did for the original writer. But we all have had or will have some knowledge of this deep sorrow, suffering, and longing.
Elizabeth Webb says, “Grief, depression, illness, poverty, abuse — any of these experiences, and so many more, can plunge us into a darkness so deep that it can feel almost like death. That the abyss, the pit, the deep, is so centrally and universally a part of human life is reflected in the Psalms’ repeated reference to it. Augustine, in his exposition on this psalm, likened the abyss to the belly of the whale in which Jonah was trapped: Jonah’s abyss was deep in the water, in the yawning center of the whale’s body, tangled in the ‘very entrails of the beast.’” And our cries, too, as we are in the belly of the beast, in whatever situation we are in, is for God to hear us. And our cries are not only for God to hear us but to have mercy on us!
Have you felt that way? Have you had your bargaining moment with God yet? Maybe you’ve been in a hospital bed and you thought of a loved one who needed you to get well. Maybe you’ve been suffering deep physical pain and the cries of mercy have been primal and passionate. Maybe you are in deep spiritual doubt and don’t know if God is with you in the depths. Maybe the emotional toil of the pandemic, dying loved ones, social and financial turmoil, brings up feelings of depression and abandonment. I wish you didn’t have to experience it. But we do. And this is part of Lent, part of the Jesus journey, feeling as if God has abandoned us only to resurrect us from our crucifying moments. Even Jesus felt the abandonment of God on the cross. I would contend that although we feel as if we are in the depths, God does hear us and is being attentive to our cries for mercy.
Webb understands this and continues. She says, “But the careful structure of Psalm 130 indicates that the demand here issues not from a sense of abandonment but from a certainty that God will hear. The writer cries out from the sure conviction that God cares. Verse five states that the psalmist trusts in the promises that God has made and waits for their fulfillment, and twice in verse six the psalmist describes his or her soul as waiting for the Lord ‘more than those who watch for the morning.’ This phrase may refer to those who, after a night of prayer, receive confirmation of God’s redemption with the new light of dawn. The psalmist is asserting that he or she lives with even greater certainty of God’s attention than these.”
The morning is coming. Easter morning is coming. The time when Jesus will break out of the depths is coming. And in that new and resurrected life, we know, without a shadow of a doubt that God is with us and that God has abundant and lavish mercy for us. Psalm 130 is a cry for help today, but it is also the realization and revelation that God through Jesus went deeper into death, into depression, into the grave, into the depths then we will ever go. And that at the end of that journey when Jesus went to hell and back, a new and joyous and blossoming day dawned.
So, be gentle with yourselves, church. Be gentle as we struggle through Lent, through racial and economic injustice, through pain, through depression, through loneliness. Be gentle with yourselves and know that we are in this together. I tell people that when they are going through depression I can’t really lift them out of the depths as I’m not strong enough to do that. But I can sit with them in the pit because I’ve been there before, I know the landscape, and I understand just sitting is sometimes all we can do.
At Royal Lane, we give a book to our baptismal candidates by Parker Palmer called, “Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.” While exploring the life-affirming topic of calling and vocation, the reader of this little book is given a glimpse of Palmer’s vulnerability and doubts. Palmer honestly and openly recounts his story of being in the depths. Depression engulfed him after he left his work as a sociology professor and activist, to serve as the Dean of Studies at Pendle Hill, a Quaker community and retreat center in Pennsylvania. According to Palmer, “Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection – it deprives one of the connectedness that is the lifeline of every living being.” His journey out of the depths and the way that his cries for mercy were heard offers us precious insight into the meaning of real connection.
For Palmer, while in depression, most people avoided him, not wanting to be in the depths with him. There were some folks who approached him, and while he valued their efforts, these visitors often intensified the feelings of disconnection. Some offered a self-esteem boost by reminding him of his respectable qualities and his accomplishments, which only made him feel like an imposter and a fraud. And still others said, “I know how you feel,” but he said in his book that, “No one can fully experience another person’s mystery… Disconnection may be hell, but it is better than false connection.”
But a friend named Bill came along who knew what to do. With Palmer’s permission, he stopped by daily and gave him a thirty-minute foot massage. Parker said, “He found the only place in my body where I could still experience feeling – and feel somewhat reconnected with the human race.” Bill seldom spoke more than occasional mirroring statements like, “I sense your struggle today,” or, “It feels like you are getting stronger.” Palmer wrote, “His words were deeply helpful: they reassured me that I could still be seen by someone.”
This is what Palmer says of the simple presence that Bill offered:
“The poet Rainer Maria Rilke says, ‘love…consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.’ That is the kind of love my friend Bill offered. He never tried to invade my awful inwardness with false comfort or advice; he simply stood on its boundaries, modeling the respect for me and my journey – and the courage to let it be – that I myself needed if I were to endure… It is a kind of love in which we represent God’s love to a suffering person, a God who does not ‘fix’ us but gives us strength by suffering with us. By standing respectfully and faithfully at the borders on another’s solitude, we may mediate the love of God to a person who needs something deeper than any human being can give.”
So, let us sit, wait, and hope with one another this Lenten season as we approach Easter. Together we have been in the dungeons beneath the castles of despair. But in this suffering, we have cried out for mercy and God indeed hears us and loves us. The words of Psalm 130 remind us that in our waiting there is a healing balm ready to soothe our shattered souls; there is an endless mercy coming from a stone-less tomb; there is divine love and constant companionship that will make and remake us. Webb says, “Psalm 130 issues a calling to the assembled to claim for each and all of us the vast mercy of God and to companion one another through and out of the myriad of abysses we each and all encounter.”
We will be released from the depths. Our cries for mercy will be heard. But until that day comes for you, know that you are not alone in your waiting. The God of all mystery, the God of all love, and the God of all mercy surrounds you from the balcony to the basement of your life. The clouds will be passing soon and the Son of God will rise up and come out. And so will we.
 Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. (San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 2000), p. 64.