The previous weekend (9/18-19/2010) I was honored to meet with the Echo Lake Church of Christ in Westfield, NJ and discuss “Anchors for the Soul: Trusting God in the Storms of Life.” Brian Nicklaus is the minister there and it was a joy to spend some time with him. Several blog friends, and others, showed up–including Rex Butts and Adam Gonnerman. Sunday morning I shared Psalm 77 with the congregation (the audio is linked “here“).
Psalm 77 is one of my favorite lament Psalms. I return to it often–for myself and for others as I pray for or with them. I have had occasion this week to think about it again as two friends have experienced extreme hardship and tragic depths recently.
There are lines that strongly resonate with me. It uses language speaks my own heart and I can pray it with utter abandon–especially at the darkest moments of my life and the lives of others.
The Psalmist voices my own feelings.
“my soul refused to be comforted” (77:2)–in other words, don’t tell me it will be “OK,” that this is only a brief moment of hurt or pain. Don’t console me with platitudes and pronostications. In fact, to be comforted is almost to say that it really didn’t hurt that bad. Sometimes I would just rather hurt since it legitimates the reality of my pain rather than smoothing it over with “nice” (though well-meaning) words.
“I remembered you, God, and I groaned” (77:3)–in other words, in the midst of tragic circumstances, sometimes the thought of God is too painful itself. When I remember God’s promises, dreams, intent and past actions, I groan with the reality of what is happening in the present and my mind begins to question and doubt. When God is remembered in tragedy, we sometimes groan as we wonder where God was when this happened.
“I was too troubled to speak” (77:4)–in other words, I had no words and it was too painful to even articulate. There were no words to express what I was feeling and I was afraid to even say what I was thinking. Sometimes the weight is so great and the pain so unbearable that we can’t speak even if we wanted to.
But it is the questions that are so real to me. They are so direct in this Psalm, and they are the obvious questions to sufferers.
“Will [the Lord] never show his favor again?” (77:7) Tragedy seems unending as if the pain will never go away and no joy can erase it. How can there be “favor” again? What would that look like? Am I God-forsaken?
“Has his unfailing love vanished forever?” (77:8) Where is the love God promised? Is this how you love us, O God? You may call this love but it does not look that way to me. Where is your love in the midst of tragedy?
“Has God forgotten to be merciful?” (77:9) Where is your mercy? Is the world–is not my life–broken enough? Why must this continue? When will you remember your love for us and show us mercy?
If the Psalm ended there, it would still be a wonderful place to sit since it is not a place that many “church folk” allow us to sit. Many don’t want to hear the questions, nor do they want to hear our feelings. They would rather we not speak or perhaps even admonish us as Job’s friends did. The Psalm would have value even ending at verse 9 much like Psalm 88 ends.
However, the Psalmist finds a way to walk through the trouble and the questions. The Psalmist, with the strength of faith, will come to confess that God’s “ways…are holy” (77:13) despite all appearances. How does the Psalmist get there?
He does three things:
“To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.” I will make a claim about God’s track record. I will recognize that God’s right hand has delivered me in the past and that he has delivered his people in the past. God will not abandon his people.
“I will remember the deeds of the Lord.” I will recount, retell and relive the deeds of God. I will immerse myself in God’s narrative, God’s story. I will remind myself of the innumerable ways God has been present to redeem his people.
“I will…meditate on all your mighty deeds.” I will quiet myself in mediation–find a moment of calm to let the peace of God sink into my soul by probing the meaning and experiencing in my own soul the reality of God’s redemptive work for his people.
The Psalm reminds me that God has redeemed, does redeem and will redeem again. It still hurts. Nevertheless, I trust in the redemptive work of God. God has a track record. He had demonstrated in Israel and also ultimately, climatically and finally in Jesus Christ. Nothing in all creation, my friends, can separate us from the love of God in Christ. This is our trust and hope.