Feeling abandoned in darkness, they were not alone, after all

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 19, 2016

A chance encounter with one of our readers led to a surprise ending in which some who had felt abandoned found a sympathetic companion for their journey through a bewildering darkness.

And the companion was a despairing fellow who lived perhaps 2,700 years ago – the unknown author of one of the Psalms.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. For the past eight months I’ve been leading a weekly study of the Psalms at our church. Ah yes, those biblical hymns certainly cover a wide range of human experiences and emotions: praise and thanksgiving, reflections on creation and the glory of its Creator, God’s shepherd-like watchcare over us, and God’s presence with us when we journey “through the valley of the shadow of death” – and sometimes our bewilderment over where God is when we feel hopelessly lost and alone.

As is my custom, I’d arrived at Coffee Traders mid-morning this Monday, received my usual cup of light roast from one of the friendly servers, and headed upstairs to the balcony.

There he was, all by himself at a table for two along the railing, working on his laptop. Our Cochrane coffee companion Kristian Wold looked up, saw me, motioned for me to join him, and began closing his computer.

Kristian, besides being an avid outdoorsman, is the pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in northwest Calgary. As I arrived, he’d been working on words of comfort he’d be sharing at a funeral later this week.

We got to chatting about loss and grief. Yes, there were those who have lost their health and their loved ones. There were those who lost all their earthly possession in this month’s wildfire in Fort McMurray. There were those who have lost their reputations because of slander and gossip. There were those who have lost all confidence in themselves through bad choices and unbearable consequences.

I mentioned to Kristian that I’d been leading a study of the Psalms, many of which are classified as laments – as heartfelt expressions of grief, sorrow, bewilderment over life’s darker moments and feelings of abandonment.

When I referred to “darker moments and feelings of abandonment,” he responded with a memory of a particularly transformative moment during his pastoral training.

It was December 1st, World AIDS Day. A group of about 50 AIDS sufferers, their families and friends, and support workers had gathered at Carnegie Centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for a commemoration. Upon arriving, Kristian was asked if he’d say a few words.

But what to say? He’d never been in such a dark, lonely place in his own life as many of those gathered that evening were in.

Ah yes, Psalm 88. He would read words by an ancient biblical poet who also felt painfully alone and cried out from the depths of his troubled soul.

What an amazing choice of psalms, I thought to myself. Here were words that, as our mutual friend Rabbi Shaul Osadchey had explained to me once, are descriptive of “a complete black hole of despair and sorrow from which no joy could emanate,” leading the writer to lament the seeming absence not only of family and friends, but even of God.

I wondered whether such an emotional reaction might parallel the darkness and gloom many Jews experienced during the Holocaust.

Kristian opened his Bible and began reading to those confronting their own personal darkness and gloom of AIDS:

“O Lord, God of my salvation … incline your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of troubles …. I am counted as those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead…. You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them… my eye grows dim through sorrow….

“O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? … I am desperate…. You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.”

With the word, “darkness,” Kristian said no more, closed his Bible and sat down. A hush fell over the room.

Then one of the participants shouted out “Yes!” Another began to clap his hands. Then the whole gathering broke into applause.

They were not alone, after all.


© 2016 Warren Harbeck

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