Beyond Despair


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

January 21, 2018

Test: Psalm 3

      In his play The Tragedy of King Lear, Shakespeare created one of the most moving portraits of despair we have in literature. The old king wishing to abdicate and divide his kingdom among his three daughters, asks which of them love him most. The two older daughters provide flattering answers pleasing Lear, but his youngest Cordelia answers that she loves him as her bond, her relationship requires. Lear flies into a rage and banishes her but soon discovers that the older ones had only flattered him to gain control of the kingdom. As a result, Lear goes insane and wanders about the heath.

       To make a long story short, Cordelia returns to rescue him but loses the battle and then is hanged. Lear, however, regains enough of his mind to realize what has happened. Carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms, he cries, “Howl! Howl! Howl! O, you are men of stones! . . .  A plague upon you murderers all! I might have saved her, now she’s gone forever!” And cradling her, he cries out, “Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little . . .” And bending over her, he continues: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all? Thou’it come no more . . . Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, look there, look there.” And then, he simply faints and dies in grief from the despair of losing Cordelia.

        Do you remember when you felt despair? Like the whole world was crashing in on you and there was nothing, absolutely nothing you could do about it? I remember days, weeks, perhaps even months like that. There is a point in each of our lives when we have felt despair, absolute utter despair.  

       I imagine King David must have felt that as he realized that his son Absalom was out to take over his kingdom. The mixture of despair and fear is apparent in the Psalm we read this morning. “Many are saying to me, ‘There is no help for you in God.’” And how often have we thought words similar to those when we have felt great despair.  For in the depths of despair, there are times when we have wondered: Where is God?

       Those who have experienced severe loss – a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a friend – whether expected or unexpected have often felt such deep despair and grief. Through the periods of illness and fearful expectation, the despair often precedes the grief, which may initially seem like relief, but that feeling is only passing, temporary. And despair and grief are not necessarily connected to death.  As in the case of Lear, it can be betrayal.

       David certainly felt betrayal as his son, his own flesh and blood, plotted to undo him and his kingship and led a revolt. Revolt is the word we use, of course, when a revolution fails. And, indeed Absalom’s attempt to seize power from his father fails. In 2 Samuel we are given a picture of the young Absalom considering himself not only high and mighty but handsome beyond beauty with his crowning achievement as his head of hair – the irony of which that in the end it is what enables him to be trapped, hanging beyond heaven and earth, as the text puts it.

       Happily none of us have experienced the kind of despair David must have felt when he learned that his eldest son Ammon had raped his own half-sister. And neither have we felt the despair when Absalom took revenge on Ammon for violating his own full sister. It seems that the houses of kings do not engender much happiness, whether Lear’s or David’s.

But despair we have all felt. But despair and depression should not be confused. One is a condition for which a person needs clinical intervention and the other is a feeling usually related to a series of events in our lives. We feel despair when we feel alone, as if there is no one to bring us out of the depths. Sometimes, we find we cannot even pray.  

       David’s call to God is a plea, begging the Lord to sustain him in this time of peril: “But you, O Lord, are a shield around me.” If you look at the words of this Psalm, they first appear to be hopeful, but in reality they the words of a man fully fearfully aware that his own son could kill him: “I cry aloud to the Lord, and the Lord answers me from his holy hill.” But has the Lord answered David, a man in flight from the holy hill of Jerusalem? One would say, perhaps not, for David is still in flight against Absalom and his army.

       “I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around,” David continues. When I read this, I remember the 1963 Carnegie Hall concert with Pete Seeger.  He had just led the hall in the first verse of “We Shall Overcome,” and then told the audience that they needed to sing the words “we are not afraid” in spite of the fact that we all are afraid from time to time, but we still sing the words because they give us hope and courage.

Indeed, there have been times when we have all been afraid, whether it was in the middle of a demonstration and being hit with a brick, or being caught at night in a part of town that you wonder how you even got there, or in a hospital room watching someone die. We want to cry with David, “Rise up, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God!”

       But sometimes there is only silence. And we wonder: Where is God? At those times we can feel the despair engulfing us, and emotionally, even spiritually paralyzing us.  And we wonder: Where is God? Where are you, God? Where are you? Where did you go? But the God of our childhood, the God we were taught in Sunday School, that God does not answer.

       Despair, deep despair, is not the best time to consider the theological niceties of different systems of belief and whether they address any of the questions we have. Despair is a time when we cry out, when we shudder, when we feel God’s silence, no matter what we think we believe.

       Moving beyond despair is hard work, emotionally and spiritually. And it is most difficult when we feel alone. David in this Psalm clearly feels alone. He cries out for deliverance and asks that his enemies be struck and that the teeth of the wicked, as he puts it, be broken. Takes the despair from me, O God, and make my enemies despair is the cry of David.

       When we despair, often there is no enemy, as Absalom was to David. But we experience something like an enemy within which prevents us from moving beyond, out of despair. Spiritual paralysis often results and it can block us from moving beyond despair.

       This isn’t going to be one of those “just get down on your knees and pray” type sermons. It’s just not that easy. We need to be emotionally embraced by those who care for us while we go through our dark night of the soul. Each of us has within us some one thing that enables us to connect again.  

In his prose poem, “The peace of wild things,” Wendell Berry writes: When despair for the world grows in me . . . I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

       Music or art can also serve as a vehicle to connect to the world beyond our despair and catch the glimpse of hope so essential to all of us as human beings. It can be as powerful as a Bach cantata or as simple as lullaby. It can be as grand as a Michelangelo drawing or as rudimentary as a child’s attempt to draw a cat.  

       The despair that we may feel because of events that occur in the world around us is a different kind of despair than the despair that engulfs us personally, and it is important to distinguish the two. Anger that turns into action moves us beyond the sense of helplessness that accompanies despair. Yesterday, I joined over 300,000 others in New York in a march not just as a protest against policies that I and many others find reprehensible but as a sign of strength and solidarity.  

       The march is over but the galvanizing energy is not and now many of us will move to confront and change the direction of policies that breathe contempt on our basic values as Americans.  

Facing and confronting emotional and spiritual despair is in some ways no different. The community of faith strengthens us in such times as we find we are able to talk about such despair. Often God listens to our despair through the ears of our friends, our community of faith. And as we talk about our despair, we take control of our despair and begin to move beyond it.

       David closes his psalm noting that God’s blessing is on the people. It is in people that we move beyond even our deepest despair and hear the whisper of the voice that calls us to life.

       Let us pray: You, O God, who knows our deepest longings, our deepest fears, help us to be faithful to you through our faithfulness to each other. Amen.