“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn us back to dust, and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’ For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance. For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. Turn, O LORD! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!”—Psalm 90
Psalm 90 is listed for three days in the daily Adventen readings for the Revised Common Lectionary. One of those days, today, happens to be World AIDS day. As I read the words of the Psalm over and over, I realize that they address this day perhaps better than any other words out there.
Zambia has one of the highest rates of HIV infection and AIDS diagnosis in the world. Hardly a day has gone by since I have been here on which I have not heard about somebody who has lost a loved one to the syndrome, who is in the process of losing a loved one, or is facing the possibility of losing one’s own life. The language of testing and ARVs is part of everyday discourse. Aggressive media campaigns for prevention and treatment frequent the airwaves and cover billboards. Even with such extreme sensitization, though, stigma reigns supreme. People often die of “being sick” instead of complications related to AIDS. Partners are often suspicious of each other. This seems to be in large part because of the legacy of the Church. Even though churches today are sometimes active in addressing stigma and promoting prevention, the sexual mores and taboos brought by missionaries have left their mark. As with so many communities in the West, sexuality is demonized and repressed. People are judged for behavior rather than character.
As a result of the high prevalence, the loss, the fear, and the stigma, there is a general brokenness. The Psalmist is struggling to cope with a strikingly similar brokenness—a brokenness that does not make sense if we are indeed loved, a brokenness from which God seems distantly removed, a brokenness that feels terminal. The Psalmist goes through stages so common to the afflicted: 1) seeking a refuge in God that once seemed unshakeable but now seems to be collapsing, 2) questioning God’s wrath and anger, for surely the affliction must be the result thereof, and 3) begging for God to turn back and express compassion and love.
Throughout this entire process one thing is constant: the distance felt between the Psalmist and God. God views life through an eternal perspective. The Psalmist is necessarily concerned with mortality. If God sees one thousand years as one day, how could God possibly be concerned with a life that lasts 70-80 years, a life that makes up the entirety of what we humans know and care about? If God is operating through the lens of cosmic and eternal justice, how can we humans possibly cope with the resulting anger and wrath? In the language of the Psalmist, our life is simply a sigh.
So, in the final stage we see the Psalmist begging for God to meet us at our level. There is a longing for God to be aware of days and years, not just eternity. There is a plea for a type of justice that makes sense, for which there is at least a balance between joy and suffering according to the short time of human life. There is a request for physical blessing, that the fruits of life’s labors might pay off.
In short, the Psalmist—like so many who suffer with HIV and AIDS and like so many who are broken in this world—is crying out for God to understand. There is an all-consuming need for God’s immanence.
With the coming of Christ we got that immanence. God experienced the fullness of humanity—mortality, suffering, joy, loss, fear, and everything else in our deep well of emotions and concerns. God finally understood.
I imagine that many of us have lost sight of that immanence, that assurance that God does indeed know what we are going through. With the help of the ever present Holy Spirit, may we practice expectant hope for our very present God.