“Re:member” — Psalm 77

Since the days of the Early Church, Christians have always observed a season of preparation for Easter that focuses on the themes of penance, reconciliation, prayer and good works. We set aside time for honest self-reflection, to ask ourselves, “How is it with my soul?” “How is it between me and God, or my neighbors, friends, enemies, strangers?” “Where in my life, in my relationships, is there brokenness and a need for forgiveness or reconciliation?” “What doubts, distractions, diversions, addictions are preventing me from living a full life?”

In Lent we look to re-order our lives according to image of Jesus, and to return to God. We come clean, letting go of old patterns, regrets, excuses and grudges; we take inventory of our lives and try to make things right wherever possible. It’s hard and honest work, because it deals with the hard and honest realities of our lives.

And our reading from Psalm 77 wastes no time in daring to speak about some of those hard and honest realities. It’s an audacious Psalm that gives truthful utterance to the darkness and doubt that we’ve all experienced.

I found myself in trouble and went looking for my Lord;

   my life was an open wound that wouldn’t heal…

…friends said, “Everything will turn out all right,”

   I didn’t believe a word they said.

I remember God—and shake my head.

   I bow my head—then wring my hands.

I’m awake all night—not a wink of sleep;

   I can’t even say what’s bothering me…

I ponder the years gone by…

   wondering how to get my life together.

Will the Lord walk off and leave us for good?

Is his love worn threadbare?

“Just my luck,” I said. “The High God goes out of business

   just the moment I need him.”

~ The Message

Have you ever prayed a prayer like that? Ever walked around in the rubble and ruins of your life and wondered why, and where is God, and is there even a God at all, and if there is, then how can this be?

Most of us, I’m pretty sure, have prayed a prayer like that, because most of us likely have a story about the day it seemed like God let us down. Maybe it was when you were ten years old, when you’d kneel at your bedside and pray that your grandfather wouldn’t die from the strange disease you could neither pronounce nor understand—only weeks later to stand at his graveside and weep. Maybe it was when you were fifteen, and you prayed that your parents would stay together, only months later to have a home with only half a family. Maybe it was when you were thirty-five with a family, when the week before Christmas the company laid you off with no warning; or when you were forty-five and your teenager didn’t come home; or when you were fifty-five and the doctor said, “We have your test results.”

If you live long enough you’re bound to find yourself in one of those moments of deep disappointment with God. Sometimes they’re not just moments, or even days; sometimes they’re long seasons when you wonder where God is, and when God will decide to do something about your situation, and why God hasn’t already. You say your prayers, talk to friends, read your Bible, try to think positive thoughts and hope for the best. Just trust, you tell yourself. Then it all falls apart, and you either lean on God even more, or you shake your fist at God and walk away, limping.

There’s nothing more painful than enduring the silence of God. Bono of U2 wrote a song many albums ago that captured an entire generation’s disillusionment with God. Staring out at the violence and suffering of the world, wondering why, he sings a lament that sounds a lot like Psalm 77:

Jesus, I’m waiting here, boss

I know you’re looking out for us

But maybe your hands aren’t free.

 Your Father, He made the world in seven

He’s in charge of heaven.

Will you put a word in for me?

 Wake up, wake up dead man…

We might choose our words more carefully, but it’s an honest song that might have found its way into the Book of Psalms, just as Psalm 77 did.

It’s believed that Psalm 77 may have been written and recited for worship during the tender days of Israel’s exile in Babylon after 570 B.C. God’s chosen ones have found their lives in utter shambles. The Temple has been destroyed. Jerusalem, the holy city, has been leveled. Many of their best leaders have been executed; families have been torn apart and deported. Everything is lost. Has God has abandoned them? Why hasn’t God done something about this? Does God even care? Has God changed, turned away from us, withheld his love from us?

From the ashes of grief and loss a daring song is composed—Psalm 77—asking the question that so many are afraid to even ask: “Where is God?” This Psalm is a gift to us because it reminds us that doubt is not the opposite of faith, but a genuine expression of faith. The opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear. Faith will always have its doubts, but faith is courage to do what you have to do in the face of doubts—courage to speak your doubts honestly, even to God. The Psalmist is unafraid to speak his mind, and to say what’s crossed our minds from time to time. “Have you walked off and left us for good? Has your love worn threadbare?”

It’s his courage to ask these questions that, in the end, leads him to a new discovery. “I look at my situation today,” he says, “and I can’t see you anywhere. I look to tomorrow, and there’s no sign that help is on the way.” But before he decides to throw in the towel altogether, it occurs to him to look back—to remember another time, another place, and another people who’d walked in his shoes and lived to tell about it. He thinks about his ancestors of old, Moses and Aaron, and what it must have been like for them to free all of those Hebrew slaves in Egypt, only to be chased by the Egyptian army all the way to the edge of the sea, with no where to turn.

He remembers that they were trapped, too. No way out. No sign of God’s help. Hopeless. A colossal tragedy.

But it wasn’t a tragedy after all. They made it out alive. He says,

You’re the God who makes things happen…

You pulled your people out of the worst kind of trouble,

   rescued the children of Jacob and Joseph…

Your way was through the sea,

   your path, through the mighty waters;

   yet your footprints were unseen.

The unseen footprints of God.

Just because God doesn’t always leave evidence of his presence doesn’t mean God is absent. The Psalmist sees it, finally: if God was there all along, but didn’t leave any footprints, maybe God is here, too—“pulling his people out of the worst kind of trouble.”

Memory can be a wonderful gift. Sometimes, when you’re in the darkest place and can’t see a way out, the only way to move forward is by looking backward. When we look back and remember we realize that we’re not the first to go through this. Others have faced similar battles and lived to tell about it.

Several years ago I climbed the venerated Half Dome in Yosemite. Climbers have made that trek for more than 130 years. The first person on record to make the ascent was George C. Anderson, back in 1875. Today, throughout summer, 1,000 people a day make that climb.

At one point on that hike, I placed my hand on a large boulder to pull myself over a set of steep granite steps, and it occurred to me that my hand was not the first hand to touch that boulder. The rock’s surface was stained by countless handprints, its once-rough edge noticeably worn and smoothed over by the thousands and thousands of hands that had reached for it over the last century. The more I hiked, the more I saw the evidence of those who’d gone before me. Along the trail, the rocks beneath my feet, once sharp and jagged, had been dulled and polished by thousands of boot steps; the hundreds of granite steps scattered along the way had seen their edges rounded, as if they’d been sculpted and sanded; the steel cables that lead up the final assent on face of Half Dome—even these had been worn and polished smooth by generations of climbers who’d clung to them.

I realized that I wasn’t the first to take this journey, nor would I be the last. It occurred to me that, while the path was demanding and often grueling, it must have been even more so for that generation of hikers whose feet blazed that trail for the first time. In 1870, Half Dome was declared “completely inaccessible,” and yet, more than a century later, thousands of people climb it each year.

On most of our journeys, even the worst of them, others have been there. Others have walked in our shoes.

I read Buzz Aldrin’s account of his famous moonwalk in 1969. After the historic walk, when they were ready to lift off from the moon, Houston gave him clearance for liftoff. Aldrin said that he jokingly replied, “Roger, we’re number one on the runway.” Later, he said, “Of course, there was no runway up there. And there certainly wasn’t anyone else waiting in line to lift off. I was conscious of that,” he says. “I was conscious of being first.”

But that’s rare. For the most part, it’s been done before. When we’re apt to think we’re all alone on this journey, that no one really understands what we’re going through, that the path before us is inaccessible, we can remember people, like Moses and Aaron, from our past. Others have gone before us: their collective handprints show us where to place our hands; God’s unseen footprints lead us forward.

So when we look back we can remember others who’ve been there; but we can also remember God’s goodness over the course of our past.

The only way the psalmist can see the road in front of him is to look back and remember how far God has taken him already. Sometimes we have to look back in order to find the courage to move forward. When you do that, you start to gain a little perspective. You can see the God moments, and maybe you can start to see a pattern emerging. What had seemed like random events in the past appear now to have some greater meaning or purpose. You see that God was active and present in those events, but at the time you just didn’t see or know it. Only now, by looking back, can you see that it was all leading somewhere, that the providence of God held it all together, like a story.

I grew up in a small town in Southern California. It has since grown over the years, but when I was a teenager, it was still a rural town with more cattle and chickens than people. Many of the roads near my home were unpaved, and one of our teenage stunts was to try to see how far we could drive our cars on those dirt roads by rear-view mirror navigation. I don’t advise that you try this. Back then, the worst that could happen on those dirt roads would be to hit a cow or veer into a drainage ditch.

This was how we entertained ourselves: driving forward on dirt roads by looking solely through the rear-view mirror. Ten miles an hour, with nothing more than a view of the road behind you as your guide. Bouncing over potholes and rocks, winding slowly through curves and over hills.

I wonder if there are times in our lives when, instead of staring anxiously at the horizon, brooding over what our future may hold for us and when it’s finally going to get better—I wonder if instead we listen to the wisdom of this Psalm. It says that there are times when it’s possible only to move forward by looking back, over the course of our lives, remembering how far we’ve come and how God’s goodness has carried and sustained us along the way. When we do that we can see that God has been acting, caring, working all along—sometimes in obvious ways, but most often behind the scenes of our lives. We can see that maybe our lives are actually moving toward some good end that God has intended for us. Rarely can we see it by looking forward. Most of the time, we can only see it in hindsight.

Your path led through the sea,

your way through the mighty waters,

though your footprints were not seen.

What he’s saying is that, in the turbulent waters of our lives, we can’t see God coming or going, but God is there.

People often tell me that this is something they’ve always suspected about God, but never were able to put it into words. They look back over the course of their lives, and they see some purpose to it, a purpose they’d never seen before. Something good, or maybe something not so good, happens to them years ago, and they thought it was just a lucky break back then, or hard luck. But years later, they see a purpose to it.

In the midst of the Psalmist’s breakdown, he has breakthrough: he looks back and remembers. He remembers the people who’ve gone before him. And he remembers that God didn’t bring him this far to leave him; that God didn’t lift him up to let him fall.

You pulled your people out of the worst kind of trouble,

Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters;

   yet your footprints were unseen.