“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

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[Thomas McKenzie here. I’d like to introduce you to my friend Chance Perdue. We’ve known each other for some years now, and he’s the youth minister at our church. On Good Friday this year, I asked Chance to give one of the seven meditations during a service called The Seven Last Words. It’s a three-hour-long vigil during which we ponder the sentences Jesus spoke while on the Cross. I loved what Chance had to say, and I commend it to you here as a RR post. I hope it’s a blessing to you.]

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus knew these ancient words long before he was hoisted up onto the instrument of his execution. How many times had he chanted them in the Temple, around the table with his family at Shabbos, in the silence of his own heart? They are the cry of David from Psalm 22, and any Jewish boy would have learned the Psalter at an early age. So when Jesus cries out in agony from the cross, it’s as much a well worn prayer as it is a doubt in the presence of the Divine—there’s no need to assume that you can’t do both at the same time.

There are moments when the Scriptures we’ve heard over and over again become the truest way for us to express our hopes, our hurts, our fears. I imagine this was true for Jesus throughout his life, but especially so on the cross. His broken and dying heart became a vessel that only Psalm 22 could fill. But he isn’t the only one. Very recently, I saw that same cry of David and King Jesus come alive right in front of me. And yes, it was painful.

Last week I got a call from Mom. “Hank is on his way out. They found the cancer just a few days ago. It’s been growing for years and it’s aggressive and could you and your brother please come. They’ve removed all monitors and the feeding tube, according to his wishes, and it’s only a matter of time until nature takes it’s toll. He’s going to lay here and starve to death.”

I made the necessary arrangements, packed a light bag, drove to the airport to pick up my brother, and we headed for North Carolina. From the moment I received the call, I’d been thinking about Hank. His life is full of outlandish tales, and my mind went immediately to the many stories of faith he used to tell about a great grandmother. “Grandma would pray, and things would happen,” he used to say. Suddenly, I could hear the words of David from that old psalm: “Our forefathers put their trust in you; they trusted, and you delivered them.” This was going to be an interesting trip.

On top of the sadness, the whole situation was tense and awkward. Hank has spent the last few years of his life, inexplicably pushing away those who love him the most. A few months ago, he formally disowned my brother over the phone. So you can imagine the feelings of my dear brother, ever the cynic, as we drove into the night. He was less than cordial, dreading the whole scene, certain that we’d all be forced into a “come to Jesus” moment over this dying man’s body, and he was having none of it. It seemed unreal to him, disingenuous. And again, in the back of my mind, I heard the psalm: “they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying, ‘He trusted in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, if he delights in him.’”

After some hours of driving, we made it to the solace center in Asheville. The other side of the family was already there. They’ve spent most of Hank’s life draining his billfold and casting him aside when the money runs out. We are not friends. As my brother and I made our way into Hank’s room, we saw them first. I admit that they looked to me like vultures gathered around the bed, and the psalm went on: “They stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing.”

When the group of people spread, we saw him. He was a thinned out suggestion of the man I knew. It was terribly disturbing to see him lying in this place, his emaciated frame twisted this way and that, his head back and mouth open as if crying out to the ceiling. It looked like his limp body had just been dumped there, but once again David said it better than I could: “I am poured out like water; all my bones are out of joint; my heart within my breast is melting wax.”

We spent the rest of the night and the next day at his bedside, taking turns holding his hand and talking to him. The nurse assured everyone that he could hear us—I’m still not sure if that’s true. It was fairly somber until my brother and I got everyone laughing, telling wild stories about Hank and all his funny antics. I kept wondering absent-mindedly when someone would feed him, then I would remember. Through it all, he mostly lay there with his mouth open, his breathing labored. You can’t give food or water to a dying person, as it only does more harm. The only “relief” you can give them is wetting their lips every so often, using little moisteners from the drawer next to the bed. As I sat beside him, using this little tool to give a tiny gift of water to his dry lips, I heard it again: “My mouth is dried out like a pot-sherd; my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; and you have laid me in the dust of the grave.”

On Saturday, we took his hand, said our goodbyes, and my brother and I headed back toward Nashville. It was strange to drive away, knowing that I’d seen my grandpa for the last time. We tried to talk and laugh as much as we could during the trip, but long and uninterrupted silences kept getting in the way. Death is such a bothersome thing—not like a fly in the kitchen or an untied shoelace, but a bother that’s hard to get at, hard to work out. Why is it that no matter the passion we bring to the table, we all end up splayed out on a sterilized bed, helpless and feeble? It is the great injustice of this universe, and there’s nothing we can do about it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on how I felt or what I needed to say.

We got back to my house late on Saturday night and made it to church the next morning to wave our palm fronds and whatnot. I admit, this year the cry of Hosanna felt more like a funeral dirge than a triumphal announcement. Things just felt a little out of place for most of the day. Then, on Monday, as I sat in my office studying, it came full circle. I saw my grandfather’s life spread across years and miles. I saw the hurt and frustration of a failed marriage, a retirement lost, the abandonment that he faced from so many, the abandonment he measured out toward others. I saw him lying there in that bed, unable to speak, unable to think coherently, unable to make amends. Then the words of David became his words, my words, our words: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

I’ve spent more than my fair share of time and research on these words, but it’s a different thing altogether when you can no longer analyze them because they’ve begun to well up deep inside of you. For better or worse, the feeling of abandonment, fear of isolation, and utter injustice of this planet is part of what it means to be alive. In all likelihood we will each of us feel it rise from within at one time or another.

This is the point of Scripture—it’s the description of human experience, handed down to us from our forebears. There really is nothing new under the sun. The fear, the confusion, the hurt has all been felt before, and these sacred words testify to that truth. But it’s more than that. In these very old words, we also hear the story of the One who is truly man and truly God, walking among us, feeling our joy, taking on our abandonment and despair as his own. The Word through whom all things were made humbles Himself and allows the very human and broken words of mortals to become the cry of his own infinite heart. And that changes everything. See, it means that no matter how abandoned, how hurt, or how utterly god-forsaken we may feel, it’s okay. To cry out with David, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” is no act of unfaithfulness, because Jesus cries out with us from the agony of the Cross. He has touched the deepest and darkest parts of humanity, and that is Good News indeed. And even if we can’t see the light when we cry out in despair, that’s okay too. Sometimes our forsakenness is so deep that it can only follow us from the hospital bed to the grave, where it must wait in the silence and darkness of the tomb. But Jesus has been there, too. Amen.


8 Comments

  1. Micah

    Thank you, Chance, for such a powerful reminder that we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weakness.

  2. Brave Sir Robin

    “You can’t give food or water to a dying person, as it only does more harm.”

    I don’t know what Hank’s specific cancer was, so maybe in his case there were legitimate complications that would have been worsened by trying to keep feeding/hydrating him. But I have to say that this general statement is definitely not true. The medical community does say things like this, but they’re not telling the truth. It’s resulted in quite a few cases where patients are starved/dehydrated to death even against their will, let alone with previous consent. Of course, ethically it shouldn’t make a difference.

  3. Tony Heringer

    Powerful. I love how wove together this story. I especially enjoyed his reflections on Palm Sunday. That’s the reason I value the liturgical calendar. Each year we come into these seasons with a different perspective. This also fits in with the idea how Scripture is living and active coming clearer to us as we grow in grace and truth.

  4. Nick Volkening

    This was greatly encouraging to me today. I forwarded this to a friend who is suffering and feeling distant from Christ amidst her struggle. Tonight I thank God, for my friend’s sake particularly, that we have a High Priest that truly resonates with our suffering. A reminder that Jesus was and is truly the God Man, indeed. Thanks for posting this.

  5. Tarie Sloan

    This was something I really needed to read tonight. My grandfather is in the hospital with pancreatic cancer, in the past few months he has undergone two major surgeries to try and help preserve his life. They installed a feeding tube that he did not want to be dependent on so he suffered drinking the drink he hated called ensure. The doctors told him if he drinks five ensure a day he would not half to be fed with the tube. So he did this until he could not take it anymore. Then he went in for a second surgery and they removed the tube from him. This whole time I have spent hours praying for him and asking God to please make his life livable for him, without suffering without pain. My grandfather lost his wife a little more than two years ago unexpectedly and quickly, he has been devastated since then all of this was just adding to his depressing bucket. I thought that if I could spend enough time with him keeping his mind off of all the sad thoughts that I could help him receive the peace he so was seeking in his heart. We talked many hours about God and heaven and what a wonderful and peaceful place we all have promised for us, by Gods sacrifice of his own son. Today was very painful for me to think about. I know that my grandfather is a very proud man, he has always been very independent and able to do for himself. He does not ever want to be a burden to anyone. Today when he was in the hospital a nurse sat him up at about 10:15 and told him she would be back in an hour to lay him down. Me and my daughter came to visit him at about 12:00. While we were there he said a couple time that she was going to come lay him down. So we suggested he push the call nurse button and have her help him to bed because he is attached to a pump in the wall that has a tube going down his nose and into his stomach otherwise we would have helped him. He said no, I am not going to bother the nurses they have a lot of patience and when they have time they will come in here. So I went to the restroom and on the way I stopped at the nurses desk, and whispered to the lady that grandpa would like to lay down but that he does not want to be a burden to anyone and asked if his nurse was available. She was not she was at lunch for another 20 minutes. So I went back in and told grandpa that we would only stay for another 20 minutes because that is when his nurse will be getting back from lunch. Wrong thing to say. I regret saying it ever since. He started to yell at me that I am disowned and that he has erased me from his life completely and that he does not ever want to see me again. That I should have never asked anything about the nurse or bothered her. Didn’t help that she came hoping in saying your granddaughter said you wanted to see me when I got off lunch. He told me to go and to never return because I am not his granddaughter anymore. These words are sharp like a sword and feel like they were dug deep into the center of my heart. I know that my heart was doing the right thing, but sometimes I wish I would follow my brain and not my heart. I love my grandfather dearly and I know that he is dying and that he is scared and feeling abandoned. I know that he is playing with doubt with all the fear inside of him. He has asked me things like how do you know heaven exists, how do you know God forgives all things. He has regrets he has been sharing about how he wishes he was different when he raised his kids and how he could have been a better father. These are all displays of fear and doubt. I have shared with him multiple verses from the bible about Gods promise to all of his people. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to share all of these with him, I feel despair in the fact that I am no longer welcome to come back and share all of this wonderful news and promise messages with him. I myself feel like God has forsaken me. Tonight I was searching the internet for answers as to why he would allow something like this to happen. How can he terminate my relationship over seeking help for my grandfather when he needed it and was verbally and physically stating it. Then I prayed and it dawned on me that Grandpa is loosing all the control he has in his own life, that he is grasping desperate to hold on to anything, and that the only thing he can still do is hit that button or not. I came in between him and his only control left in his life. I feel so full of sorrow that I did this, but I know that he will not forgive me, because I begged him when I was there and swore that I would never talk to another nurse and it was too late, I had already acted with my heart and not my brain. Please God I ask tonight that you fill my heart with peace and take away some of the pain I am feeling as the tears roll down my face, and the pain stings like no pain I have ever felt before. I lay down to sleep and tears just keep rolling out of my eyes, I am tired of crying. I pray that you can help both me and grandpa to have peace in our hearts and that he will suffer no more Lord, that you help his to find his way to you and that you have favor and embrace him along this hard journey.

  6. Tarie

    Today was a sad one for me. I was visiting my grandfather whom has pancreatic cancer that has spread to his liver and might be spreading to other organs. He has undergone to major surgeries and been very sad and depressed. I have been spending many days just sitting with him talking about when I was a kid and the memories I have of him and grandma and great grandma. And he has shared with me many wonderful stories of his childhood and how he met my grandma, whom pasted away a little over two years ago quickly and without any pre warning. As we sat there today I saw the dark look in grandpas eyes and the felt the pain and fear that was displayed as he sunk his head into a mindless paper trying to not have to interact with the company that came to see him. He has been so talkative and friendly, until today. I do not know what changed in him, but he was cold and disconnected with the people whom love him. He repeated a few times that the nurse had come and sat him up at 10:15 and she was going to come back to in an hour to lay him back down it was now 12:30 and she had not returned to lay him down. We suggested that he push the nurse call button and he said no way, the nurses have a lot of people they are waiting on and that they will come in when they get a chance. He does not want to be a burden to anyone. So my heart told me just sneak out to tell the nurses desk that he is tired and may want to lay down, so that he can get some rest. Big mistake. A few minutes later a nurse comes popping in saying your granddaughter told us you might want to lay down. While she was in the room he was kind and gracious and let her lay him into bed. Once she left the room he started yelling at me that I should have never bothered the nurse and that he has asked me multiple time not too, and that he disowns me that I am nobody to him anymore and that he never wants to see me again, and he followed it up with I mean it just get out of here and don’t come back. I will have a sign made to not let you into my room, you are nothing. Naturally these words were like a sword a dagger that drove into the very core of my being my heart. I have been crying since I left, I feel like God has forsaken me, that he lets me think only with my heart and that I wish sometime I could just think with my brain. After reading this I realized what I had truly done. Grandpa is used to having complete control over his entire life, where he goes, how he gets there what he eats how much he eats. He is loosing all of this he is loosing control of everything, the one thing he still has control of is pushing the nurse button or not. By thinking with my heart I jumped to I want him to be comfortable and relaxed, and I knew he would not seek this on his own for fear of being a burden to another person. I pray tonight for peace in my heart and mind, and that grandpa can stop having to suffer that you can help put peace in his heart and mind. I know in the face of death that people have hurt, regrets, pain, and the feeling of abandonment. I pray that he knows he is not alone and that God is carrying him through all of this and has always carried him through all of the trails he has had in his life.

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