When I was in high school I discovered the university radio station, CJUM. It was the only station that played anything outside of the mainstream, and in an era when disco ruled the pop music airwaves, it was for me a breath of fresh air. My clock radio was set for 6:50am, which gave me ten minutes to lie in bed listening to a song or two before I had to get myself into high gear to get ready to be out the door by 7:30; perhaps the most cherished 10 minutes of my day.
- To listen to the sermon press play:
One morning in late 1977, I was jolted awake by sounds like nothing I’d heard before. Angry, raw, loud music from a brand new record by an English band called The Sex Pistols. “God save the queen, her fascist regime,” the lead vocalist sneered.
God save the queen
she ain’t no human being
There is no future
in england’s dreaming
Don’t be told what you want
don’t be told what you need
There’s no future no future
no future for you
Part of me wanted to slam my hand down on the radio and shut off the noise, but it was kind of like driving by a car wreck… I couldn’t not keep listening. Paul McCartney would later describe the punk movement as being like the blast of rusty water that flows out of a tap that has been turned off for too long. The world of popular music had been languishing—the vital, creative tap turned off far too long—and punk was like the clearing of the pipes that signaled that the water was again flowing. It’s a pretty apt image, actually… and I can tell you this: the music I heard that morning was full of rust and sediment. A hopeless, future-less vision of what it meant to be coming of age in the England of the late 1970s, and an utter rejection of the idealism of the 1960s.
No future for you no future for me
No future no future for you
The words, the sounds, the rawness and the anger all had a strangely cathartic resonance; for poor kids in the East End of London and rich kids from the suburbs. They were afraid that there was no future, and someone was finally saying it.
And yet the story gets rather more despairing. After a train wreck of an American tour, the band more or less self-destructed, with the vocalist Johnny Rotten—so named for the condition of his teeth—quitting, and the bassist Sid Vicious dying of a heroin overdose while still under suspicion in the stabbing death of his girlfriend. And for all that the band was embraced by the punks as giving voice to their experiences as a lost and angry generation, in many respects The Sex Pistols were the invention of their manager Malcolm McLaren; a canny creator of hype and publicity. No future, indeed.
As he brings his psalm to a close, the writer of Psalm 88 does something that is quite astonishing, and which has a kind of punk-like cathartic power. He refuses to resolve his prayer into any affirmation of hope, into any proclamation of a future. Unlike most of the other psalms of lament, this writer will affirm nothing, and unlike those psalmists who cry out that justice be done to their enemies and God’s vengeance brought on those who have caused shame for Israel, this writer can say only this:
You have caused friend and neighbour to shun me;
and darkness is my only companion.
You have caused this; you, O God, are the one who is responsible for this. I am as good as dead, the psalmist cries; “like those forsaken among the dead / like the slain that lie in the grave.” I am no good to anyone here, O Lord, and in death I will have no voice to praise you. And the writer is at least suggesting that once he’s dead, God will be able to do nothing for him. “Are your wonders known in the darkness,” he asks, “or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?” The question is left hanging, but his fear is that no, once in the grave God can no longer be heard. No future.
This psalmist’s agony is that though he keeps praying, God remains silent. In their commentary on this psalm, Walter Brueggemann and W.H. Bellinger note how, “The silence of God properly evokes not explanation but a rich blend of patient waiting and impatient demand.” God is not excused and God’s silence is not justified or explained away, after the manner of the three so-called “comforters” in the book of Job. Instead this psalmist summons all the patience he has to keep praying, often in words of impatient demand:
I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
What is being expressed here is an honest and urgent cry to the God who is our freely covenanted partner in an ongoing relationship, and not—to again quote Brueggemann and Bellinger—“a wishing well or an automaton that delivers on demand.”
At the very least, we may take this psalm as attestation of Israel’s candor about God and before God, and yet [the psalm] also attests that unanswered prayer does not lead to lack of faith, or silence, or resignation. It leads rather to more urgent, vigorous petition, for Israel has no alternate source of help.
Something of the same was given expression in the spirituals of the black slave church; a community that knew what it was to live constantly in the face of violence and death. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child / A long ways from home.” That’s not just a metaphor, either, for it was common practice for slave children to be taken from their mothers and sold to other slave-owners. Sometimes I feel that lost, and sometimes I feel like the child of a God long absent. And like the psalmist, rather than just feeling those things, they sang them. And in the singing they could begin to discover that while “sometimes” I feel abandoned like that, it isn’t all the time. And so in many versions of this spiritual, a second verse is sung: “Sometimes I feel like I’m almos’ gone / Way up in de heavn’ly land.” That is a loaded verse, in at least two ways. Whereas the writer of Psalm 88 feared that death would forever cut him off from God, those slave Christians saw death as the great and final liberator, by which they’d finally be fully home in the Kingdom of God. And in the coded tradition of the spirituals, it also meant the possibility of escape; of riding the underground railroad all the “way up” to the freedom of the northern states.
Yet before they can dream those dreams, the harder truth has to be told. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” which isn’t all that different from “My soul is full of troubles / and my life draws near to Sheol”; to the place of the dead.
In the passage we heard read from the Gospel according to John, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life,” and maybe this should be heard as the most powerful counter-message to the despair voiced in Psalm 88. Maybe. In the gospel passage, Jesus’ declaration is immediately followed by a rather predictably skeptical challenge from the Pharisees: “You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.” We who number ourselves as disciples of Jesus might want to ask him a different question. We affirm, Lord, that you are the light of the world, and that you have established with us a new covenantal relationship. Why do some of us still have such a hard time seeing that light, at least at some points of our lives? Why like the psalmist do some of us still find night-time to be so hard, seemingly deprived even of the gift of sleep? Why do we sometimes hear only silence from you, when we crave to hear your voice, or see your light?
I’m not going to even attempt to answer those questions or to explain it all away, rather just name it, and to acknowledge the inclusion of Psalm 88 in the Psalter—a bold inclusion if there ever was one—as a gift to anyone who has ever felt hope slipping away; anyone who has been tempted to say “no future.” This psalmist gives us cathartic words that not only validate the reality of those empty spaces in our lives, but also offers us a kind of speech that can be a necessary step in our ongoing covenantal partnership with the one who is the light of the world. Even—or especially—when we have trouble seeing that light.