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A Syrian man meditating on Psalm 88

Daily he sees those queues. People lining up, waiting for bread or other essential items. It made Ayoub*, staff member of our local partner in Syria think of Psalm 88.

Walking around in my city Damascus, I had to think of what I once far before the war heard about ‘Learned Helplessness’. When I look around, it seems it is all around me. My brothers and sisters whom I work with know it has been for a long while. People are queuing in the streets for bread! I see those queues on my way to work, every day!

COVID-19 and social distancing? To the majority of the Syrians, it sounds like a joke! They don’t have the luxury to think about a virus. They queue up for hours to get bread, then again for fuel, and yet again for gas, rice, and sugar. The currency keeps its endless journey of collapse, and the purchasing power of average income becomes weaker and weaker, sometimes every hour!

We feel we have been sinking in a pit, “in the darkest depths”. We are “like the slain that lie in the grave”, shunned by our companions, shut in so we cannot escape, lost in the land of forgetfulness. And this brings me to Psalm 88, verses 13 through 18.

(Psalm 88:13-18 NIV)

13 But I cry to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?
15 From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
17 All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
18 You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.

By all accounts, this psalm is considered the most melancholic of all psalms. I’m no Psalms expert, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but unlike most, if not all, other psalms, even the “sad” ones, this one doesn’t end on a high note. Upon finishing it, one can’t help but feel the urge to jump to the next one in pursuit of a brighter, feel-good kind of message.

What I find striking, really, is that I hear these same cries the psalmist wrote, thousands of years ago, by many, so many, of my friends and neighbors. And some part in me weeps with them, sometimes (admittedly) feeling incapable of giving reason for the hope that is in me.

We are all so much down at the bottom of the pit and this sinking feeling is haunting. So much so that I find it difficult to fully savour the beautiful and fulfilling moments I have the privilege to encounter in our ministry. So much so that brimming with hope, in a hopeless world, feels at times too indulgent, too privileged, a luxury!

Nevertheless, even in this saddest of psalms, the psalmist did have reason to hope. He opened it up by saying: “O Lord, God of my salvation.” So despite being “in the depth of the pit,” he still believed God was sovereign, and that the Lord will one day bring salvation to the world.

As for us, the very little remnants of His people, we have even more reason to hope! Unlike the psalmist, we don’t just believe the Lord will save us. We know He already has! And I personally would go even further, because not only do I know that He saved us, but I also believe that we are now broken so His light shall shine through our cracks and from here, from war-torn Syria, His light shall shine ever brighter.

I know it sounds foolish, but it makes perfect sense, because, thankfully, we believe in a God who chooses “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise”, A God who chooses “what is weak in the world to shame the strong”.

As for that part, that tiny little part in me that weeps with my friends and neighbours, the words our Lord Himself told His disciples, and through Scripture to all of us today and every day; “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

*Pseudonym used.

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