Into the depths

Out of the depths I cry to you; Lord, hear my voice. Some cries are beautiful. Loud shouts of joy from the top of the mountain or cheers of victory from the track and the bleachers at the end of the race. The beautiful racket rising above a pool on a hot summer day, children playing and splashing, shrieking with delight.

Some cries are beautiful. But the cry out of the depths comes from a different place, it comes from a great distance, far from where life is at home. Out of the depths I cry to you; Lord hear my voice.

The psalm gives voice to the love and the despair of a father who falls at Jesus’ feet begging him to lay his hands on his little girl so that she may live. And the words give voice to an unnamed woman who doesn’t dare speak as she comes up behind Jesus to touch his clothes, reaching up from the depths of twelve years of suffering.

A couple of Sundays ago during worship I remembered Cheryl Bridges Johns, a professor at the Church of God seminary in Cleveland, TN. I hope I will never forget her challenge to make room in our worship services for unscripted things to happen. “Make room,” she said, and I’m paraphrasing her words, “make room for a little chaos to give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to tame it.”

The depths of chaos are frightening. We know they are there, some of us are sitting in them right now, but it takes a lot for any of us to cry to the Lord from the depths, unless we’re alone or have a pillow to muffle our cries. Make room, Cheryl said, for a little chaos to give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to tame it. Have yourselves a little festival of tears every now and then, she said.

When did we begin to believe that grief, despair, and helplessness must be transformed into well-written litanies before we can bring them before God? Why do we insist on projecting that everything is under control, that we have it all together? I don’t know, but I suspect it is because we want to be in control. We are afraid of chaos and we are afraid to fully trust the power of God to tame the chaos. We are afraid of what might erupt once we take the lid off. We are afraid it might overwhelm us.

And so we script our worship services carefully and expect them to be over on time. And we talk about praise and worship and create an entire industry that writes the songs for it – but who gives voice and melody to the cries that well up from the depths?

Some poets do.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.[1]

There is no setting of this poem or anything like it in the hymnals of the church. We don’t do laments, nor do we weep or wail; we cry in movie theaters, silently and grateful for the darkness, and at home behind closed doors. There is no room for a ‘festival of tears’ in our public gatherings, and so the Holy Spirit must find other ways to tame the chaos that threatens to undo us.

Jairus was a leader of the synagogue, a prominent and influential member of the community, a man people recognized and greeted in the market place. When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet, his hands and knees in the dust, and he begged him, not just once, but repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” He was a man used to having things under control, and he was powerless. The love for his daughter made a beggar of him. He could have sent a servant to ask Jesus to come to his house, but he didn’t; he was no longer afraid to reveal his love and helplessness in front of the whole town, he fell to his knees and begged, a desperate man.

In one of his memoirs, Frederick Buechner recalls his own helplessness as a father whose little girl was very sick. “One of our daughters began to stop eating. There was nothing scary about it at first. It was just the sort of thing any girl who thought she’d be prettier if she lost a few pounds might do – nothing for breakfast, maybe a carrot or a Diet Coke for lunch, for supper perhaps a little salad with low calorie dressing. But then as months went by it did become scary. Anorexia nervosa is the name of the sickness she was suffering from.” The hardest part: there was nothing he could do. “No rational argument, no dire medical warning, no pleading, or cajolery or bribing would make this young woman he loved start eating normally again. … The psychiatrists we consulted told me I couldn’t cure her. The best thing I could do for her was to stop trying to do anything. [But] the only way I knew to be a father was to take care of her – to move heaven and earth to make her well, and of course, I couldn’t do that. I didn’t have … the power to make her well.”[2]

“My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live,” Jairus begged. Jesus went with him, surrounded by people on every side, and suddenly he stopped, turned around and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

The disciples were like, “You’re kidding, right?” – they didn’t know that a woman in the crowd had come up behind Jesus and touched his cloak, convinced that if she but touched his clothes, she’d be made well. They didn’t know she had been bleeding for twelve years. They didn’t know she had spent all she had on medical bills, and was no better. Had they known, they might have told her, “This is not a good time, Mam. A little girl is dying; look, you’ve waited twelve years, a few minutes more won’t be much of a difference, but for the little girl it’s a matter of life or death.”

The woman touched Jesus with a mixture of desperation and hope. Out of the depths, too tired and poor to be afraid anymore, she reached out and touched his clothes. That was all the faith she had.

Immediately she felt that she was healed. When Jesus turned around and asked, “Who touched me?” she fell down before him and told him the whole truth. She told him the truth of twelve years of suffering and poverty, of loneliness, hopelessness, and shame – and who knows how long it took her to tell the whole truth of her suffering.

And then Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” The truth was and is that she was not just some anonymous, marginalized and impoverished woman in the crowd, but a member of God’s family. The truth was and is that God hears even the silent cry from the depths and invites us into wholeness and peace through Christ.

But what about the little girl who was only twelve years old? It was too late, they said. “Your daughter is dead,” they said, “Why trouble the teacher any further?” But Jesus said, “Do not fear, only believe.” He went into the room where she lay and took her hand. “Talita, cum,” he said, “little girl, get up!” And she got up.

Out of the depth we cry to God, “Lord, hear our voice!” and God comes into our depths, where we are so far from where life and peace are at home; God comes with healing mercy.

Mark loves to sandwich his stories; he does it quite a bit throughout his account of the gospel. Here he begins telling us the story of the little girl, then he arranges an interruption to tell us about the woman who had suffered for as many years as the girl had lived, and then he returns to the first story to finish it. And he finishes it although so many said, it is too late. Finishing it is his way of saying it’s never too late for the love and power of God.

The little girl was dead when Jesus told her Dad, “Do not fear, only believe.” Believe what? Certainly not that if we believe just right, Jesus will do a miracle for us. Thoughts like that cross our minds when we are helpless and despairing.

Mark loves to sandwich his stories so we can begin to see how our own stories, even our entire life story are woven into the life of Jesus. Our lives are his and his life is ours. Even the depths of our helpless and hopeless despair are his. He sits with us and says, “The depths of chaos are frightening, but they will not overwhelm you.” The final word of the story is God’s, and God says, “Get up.”

This word may be too big for our imagination, but it’s just the right size to tame the chaos of our fear and give us the courage to hope. May it be so.


[1] Written by W. H. Auden; known as “Funeral Blues” and by other titles; see for some background

[2] Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets: A Memoir (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), pp. 23, 26