The Psalm of a Worm

But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
–Psalm 22:6

Are you a worm? Not a gummy worm or a book worm, but a real worm–an elongated soft-bodied invertebrate that lives in the dirt? It’s not exactly an act of self-empowerment to acknowledge that you’re a worm. The word is a metaphor for insignificance; after all, there’s nothing lower than a worm.

Yet our psalmist freely admits, “I am a worm and not human; scorned by others and despised”–this after beginning with the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Hear the intensity of a doubled passion flung out from a place of brutal abandonment, an abandonment that is harder to bear because it hadn’t always been this way. “Remember, God,” our wormy companion sings out, “how you’ve been by me from the moment of my birth? You were the midwife who birthed me and placed me in my mother’s arms, the One who rocked me to sleep in the middle of the night, the One who nourished my fragile life, who cherished me and protected me. You were the God of my ancestors; I grew up hearing stories about your great acts of salvation, about the times you answered prayer when needs were great and resources were few. ‘Hosanna! God delivered us,’ they sang. So why are you not saving me? Why will you not answer my prayers? Where are you?”

This is a cry from a heart exploding with the agony of betrayal. There is no doubt here about God’s ability to rescue or save–just appalled dejection at God’s lack of response. But suddenly this psalm of a worm changes in midstream. It is no longer about “I am here and you are nowhere to be found,” but “We are here and all together we are singing your praises.” Somehow the worm has found the strength to wiggle over to join the congregation. “God is now here in our worship and God is once again here with me. Glorify the One who is with all who suffer, all who cry out for help–the widowed, the orphaned, and the weak–those who are the most despised, exploited, and vulnerable; God is with them. God is with even those not yet born, with those who have yet to hear of God’s promises. God is here and we rejoice because God always does what is promised.”

An incredible about-face? A forced happy ending? Or is this psalm perhaps less a chronological story of then and now and more an engagement with how life comes to us? Is life ever really so cut and dried–are our moments of despair clearly separate from our times of joy, or do we find that our laughter and tears come at the same time? Perhaps the psalmist is reminding us that suffering and triumph are often inseparable. Our hosannas–God save us–are whispered in the same sentence as our hallelujahs–God be praised.

But there are times when the place we find ourselves not only robs us of the presence of God; it robs us of our ability to even voice our fear and loss. Sometimes we don’t have the energy to articulate the simplest prayer. All we know is the pain of the place we are in; all we can know is that somehow we are still breathing. Then, like the psalmist, we need to be among those who can be our voice, we need to find a way to wiggle our way over to the community of God’s people where we can find the safe space to weep while others sing songs of praise, lift up our needs for us, and tell the stories of God’s care and love that remind us of who God is. It is here in this community of a past that has nurtured faith, of a present that points to faith, and of a future where our stories of faith will be told that we worms can bring our “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Like Jesus, who recited this psalm while in his own brutal place of abandonment on the cross, we can claim the promise that despite what we may experience, God has not abandoned us. Jesus’ cry, like our own, is an affirmation of faith in a God who shares our affliction and is present in our suffering. Suffering is not something God is absent from or inflicts on us. Suffering is something God does.

Jesus performs this psalm for us; he shows us that, like him, we are to be identified by both the cross and the resurrection–by the passion of our pain and the glory of our redemption. Pain and praise, suffering and celebration, life and death, all are strands in our faith stories and of the Lenten journey.

Thea Leunk is pastor of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.