On a day when each of us are reminded that we will die and are but dust, the psalm suggested for the evening of Ash Wednesday forces us to embrace what could be easy to gloss over: that death (and therefore, life) is occasionally overwhelming and gruesome. Even as we get ash rubbed onto our foreheads, we have the opportunity to wash it off, to return to normal, to live life aware of our mortality, but unchanged by it.
Psalm 102 will pull you back from that illusion real quick. The opening of the psalm is graphic in its imagery:
For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace. My heart is stricken and withered like grass; I am too wasted to eat my bread. Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my skin. I am like an owl of the wilderness, like a little owl of the waste places. I lie awake; I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
In the the Psalms, birds are often images of loneliness or isolation. Not only is the psalmist weary, wasted, and ill, she is isolated from her community. The place in which God’s presence should be most felt is the place in which she not only feels like a bird, but a bird, high away, lonely on a housetop.
This psalm is saturated with a sense of loneliness and isolation that many feel. It’s not just the isolation from the community, though. Her cries ring true for anyone who’s ever had a sickness that separates you from people. It could be a simple as a cold and allergies, or even the flu or dealing with a cancer diagnosis. When we are not well and whole, the space between us and others who seem to be ‘normal’ seems too vast to traverse. This rings true not just for physical illness, but for mental illness as well.
The psalmist’s lament is full of petitions for herself, but also for the generations to come. She is sure of two things in her life: she is in dying and God is faithful. After the long, graphic lament, she expresses valiant confidence in God and in God’s provision. This lament is one that will either resound deeply within your soul or it will sound like a dramatic retelling of a hard day. Pay attention to your gut reaction to the psalmist’s unfiltered cries for God’s help. Today’s lament is a reminder that the cries of agony can be held with cries of faithfulness; it is a reminder to listen to those who are suffering amongst us and to let them hold their lament with their praise, not dictating which should be given the loudest voice in any given moment. It’s a reminder to look for the birds who are lonely on a housetop.