“DEEP SUFFERING makes theologians of us all.” Barbara Brown Taylor
A church basement in Burlington, North Carolina hosts a weekly Wednesday evening small group with fervent consistency. The gathered reveal the efforts of Sustainable Alamance, a Christian Community Development Initiative. This faith-based, non-profit organization works tirelessly to confront employment discrimination impacting individuals with criminal backgrounds. A 37-year-old former gang member dressed in black eloquently speaks of the struggle he is currently facing in his attempt to relate to local church leaders. He is having trouble connecting meaningfully with the faith community since his release from prison. “They think THEY know God. I KNOW GOD!”
Gang life and 11 years of incarceration shaped this man’s life, but “thug” formation was overshadowed by a divinely inspired passion to reach out to youth in the neighborhood with the hope of teaching them a different way of life. It is intoxicating to listen to this man share how the transformation from gangster to minister taught him about the character of God. Honest talk of formerly dwelling in past insecurity, the closeness of God, and the spiritual process of leading his life into a place of confidence and maturity rings true like the words of a scriptural psalm.
Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love. Psalm 31:16
Loneliness and suffering overwhelm the text of Psalm 31. This passage, wrought with tragic circumstances, invites us to wallow in misery before compelling us to be confronted by the overpowering reality of God’s mercy and love. Out of a place of deep suffering we are faced with the potential for life sustained by the move of God’s Spirit. It is evident that even the most desperate realities may become infused with hope when the breath of God’s wind blows.
But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God. Psalm 31:14
In a chapter entitled “The Practice of Wearing Skin” Barbara Brown Taylor addresses the meaningful questions people may ask about God while grounded in the throws of everyday human life. The author encourages readers to develop life-sustaining spiritual practices of incarnation. With such life-giving daily praxis, even the most mundane tasks may become extraordinary. When space is made for seeing and embracing the sacredness of daily life in a human body we are enabled to welcome solidarity with those who have momentarily lost their capacity because life has become “too numb, too busy, too old or painful.”
For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away. Psalm 31:10
The psalmist expresses sentiments like those explored by Rocke & VanDyke in Geography of Grace. The authors test the assumption that grace is like water as it flows downhill and pools up in the lowest places. Such an inclination sparks wonder about the significance of maintaining close proximity to those marginalized and ostracized by society: those who often feel damned and disinherited by God.
I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel. Psalm 31:12
The burden of the psalmist grabs our attention and awakens readers to consider the outcasts and rejects of today. Author Bob Ekblad of Reading the Bible with the Damned shares how his practice of one on one counseling presents the opportunity for inviting some of the most marginalized people in our society, sex offenders, to pray through the psalms. The group of offenders is frequently held in isolation or in separation from the rest of an imprisoned population. They often discover Psalm 31 to provide an expression of liberating accuracy thus giving them hope.
The Psalm 31 reality calls us to embrace the sending nature of God with missional spiritual intention and willingness to progress in life with Christ. Are you being drawn into the company of the ostracized? We are brought forward with God in downward mobility alongside suffering people seeking the relief of the Kingdom of God. Moving along a descending path, we are confronted with opportunities to relate to others and find invitations for joining in the work of breaking down barriers of separation.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. Psalm 31:9
Author Kathy Escobar speaks in her book Down We Go of our fearful tendency to live with a “Them or Us” mentality. Sharing stories reflecting the care of a pastor Escobar awakens our need to be in touch with personal spiritual poverty and of our need for love and validation. She encourages traveling with Jesus in descent to discover the company of human suffering. This spiritual approach grounded with Jesus moves us into closer relational proximity with suffering people in expectation of becoming friends. As we begin to see a common need for love and mercy there will undoubtedly be an end to “Them” and room only for “Us”.
Who comes to mind in the reading of Psalm 31? Do you relate personally to the pain expressed or is it hard to imagine occupying such painful space? Is God calling you to join with in solidarity as suffering servant? How is the community where you reside working to dismantle barriers of separation and isolation to create room for liberation and hope for those burdened by sorrow and pain?
 Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. New York: HarperOne, 2010.
 Rocke, Kris and Joel Van Dyke. Geography of Grace: Doing Theology from Below. Takoma: Street Psalms Press, 2012.
 Ekblad, Bob. Reading the Bible with the Damned. Louisville: WJK Press, 2005.
 Escobar, Kathy. Down We Go: Living Into the Wild Ways of Jesus. Folsom: Civitas, 2011.