Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 30, 2013

2013.06.30 “Psalm 77 – A Psalm for a Sleepless Night”

Central United Methodist Church

Psalm 77 – A Psalm for a Sleepless Night

Pastor David L. Haley

June 30th, 2013

Psalm 77

 

Psalm 77 (Grail Version)

I cry aloud to God, cry aloud to God that he may hear me.

In the day of my distress I seek the LORD.

In the night my hands are raised unwearied; my soul refuses comfort.

As I remember my God, I groan. I ponder, and my spirit faints.

You keep my eyes from closing. I am troubled, unable to speak.

 I think of the days of long ago, and remember the years long past.

 At night I muse within my heart. I ponder, and my spirit questions.

“Will the LORD reject us forever? Will he show us his favor no more?

 Has his mercy vanished forever? Has his promise come to an end?

 Has God forgotten his mercy, or in anger withdrawn his compassion?”

I said, “This is what causes my grief:

that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

I remember the deeds of the LORD, I remember your wonders of old;

I muse on all your works, and ponder your mighty deeds.

Your way, O God, is in the holy place. What god is as great as our God?

You are the God who works wonders.

Among the peoples you showed your power.

Your strong arm redeemed your people,

the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.

The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and anguished.

Yes, the depths were moved to tremble. The clouds poured down with rain.

The skies sent forth their voice; Your arrows flashed to and fro.

Your thunderous voice was in the whirlwind;

your flashes lighted up the world.

The earth was moved and trembled.

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

but the trace of your steps was not seen.

You guided your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

At one time or another, we’ve all experienced it: insomnia, the inability to sleep.

For some of us it is infrequent and unusual. On those rare occasions when we can’t sleep, it is usually due to known causes:  I should have known better than to have eaten that whole rack of ribs, or had that cup of coffee after dinner.

For some of us, on the other hand, insomnia is chronic, exhausting and exasperating.  Nothing can wear you down, make you crazier, even threaten your life (as in a car crash or walking in front of a bus) than the inability to sleep. As a common sleep disorder, insomnia has spawned a small industry, not least in anti-insomnia pharmaceuticals such as Ambien, which also has its problems.

Whatever the cause, whether occasional or chronic, the inability to sleep can also open the door to emotional and even spiritual unraveling. Once we start walking the floor and thinking about our life in the middle of the night, it’s like pulling at a loose thread on a piece of clothing; soon the whole garment begins to unravel.

It can work either way: our inability to sleep from a physical cause can lead to reflection, introspection, and anxiety. Or reflection, introspection, and anxiety can become the reason we can’t sleep, and keep us awake at night.

At such times, whether we lie in bed or roam around the house, we may go over and over what troubles us: a problem at home or work, something someone said, anxiety over a loved one. Sometimes, it may even lead to a questioning of our life, our faith, even our God.  As a parishioner once said to me, “Where is a pastor when you most need one, at 3 o’clock in the morning?”

What I’ve described is what happens in our Psalm for today, Psalm 77: a Psalm for a Sleepless Night.

By way of general introduction, may I share with you a quote I read this week by Walter Brueggemann, from his book, The Meaning Of The Psalms:  “In season and out of season, generation after generation, faithful women and men turn to the Psalms as a most helpful resource for conversation with God about things that matter most.” (Brueggemann, The Meaning of the Psalms, p. 15)

That’s what we’re engaged in, turning “to the Psalms as a helpful resource for conversation with God about things that matter most.” I’m glad I’m doing it like I am, taking those Psalms which the lectionary gives us, which, by the way, are paired with the Old Testament passages which we’re not reading. Doing it this way, we are experiencing Psalms we might not otherwise have chosen. Because we know that if’d we’d chosen our favorites, we would likely only have done those cheery, comforting, triumphant Psalms we know well, like Psalm 23 or Psalm 90. Instead, we’ve have encountered the painfully ragged but honestly realistic Psalms of lament like Psalm 77.

If you remember Walter Brueggemann’s three categories of Psalms (Psalms of orientation, Psalms of disorientation, and Psalms of new orientation); quite obviously, Psalm 77 is a Psalm of disorientation; what’s more disorienting than a sleepless night, especially when it comes as a result of turbulence in our lives?

Brueggeman has some interesting remarks about how these Psalms of negativity, these complaints of various kinds, even the cries for vengeance and profound penitence, are actually foundational to a life of faith in God. Because, as he says, much Christian piety and spirituality is romantic and unreal in its positiveness. Too often, we censor and select to bypass darkness and disorientation, seeking to go from strength to strength, from victory to victory. But such a path not only ignores these Psalms; it is a lie in terms of our experience.  On the contrary, says Brueggemann, our hope is rooted precisely in the midst of loss and darkness, where God is surprisingly present, and even there may be addressed in painful honesty. The Jewish experience of exile, the Christian confession of crucifixion and cross, the honest recognition that there is an untamed darkness in our life that must be embraced; all this is not antithetical, but fundamental to the gift of new life.

All this is true of Psalm 77, which opens with the psalmist praying, crying, yelling with hands upraised to God, in the night. It’s like he’s saying, the louder I cry, the greater my chances God will hear. It’s the way we monolingual Americans sometimes speak to people who speak another language: if we only speak English more loudly, they will finally understand: “A decent cup of coffee?” “I’m talking here, God!”

As usual, Eugene Peterson makes the distress of Psalm 77 clearer, by translating it into our idiom:

“I yell out to my God, I yell with all my might,
I yell at the top of my lungs. He listens.

I found myself in trouble and went looking for my Lord;
my life was an open wound that wouldn’t heal.
When 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.” (Psalm 77: 1 – 4, The Message)

What’s bothering him? Who knows? As last week with Psalm 42, it is could be a post-exilic psalm, written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 B.C.E.; if so, the feeling of the God’s absence would not be particular to one, but shared by all.  But the great thing about the Psalms is that we do not need to know its context, to understand its universality among people of faith. Psalm 77 could have been prayed after the Jewish War and destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., prayed by European Jews during the pogroms of medieval times, or by Jews within our lifetime, during the Holocaust. Even now, it could be prayed by any of us on those sleepless nights when we question our lives, our faith, our God.

Isn’t the experience described in Psalm 77, after all, what John Bunyan described in his 17th-century Christian classic, The Pilgrims Progress, when Christian falls into the slew of despond:

“Now I saw in my dream . . . they drew nigh to a very miry slough that was in the midst of the plain: and they being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog. The name of the slough was Despond. Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt; and Christian, because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire.” (John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress)

Isn’t that what the Psalmist does in Psalm 77, what we may do on a sleepless night, “begin to sink in the mire?”  Again, Eugene Peterson:

“I go over the days one by one,
I ponder the years gone by.
I strum my lute all through the night,
wondering how to get my life together.” (Psalm 77: 5 – 6, The Message)

As he does so, he faces his greatest fear:

“Will the Lord walk off and leave us for good?
Will he never smile again?
Is his love worn threadbare?
Has his salvation promise burned out?
Has God forgotten his manners?
Has he angrily stalked off and left us?
“Just my luck,” I said. “The High God goes out of business just the moment I need him.” (Psalm 77: 7 – 10, The Message)

What to do, at such times? The Psalmist does what we often do, he remembers and rehearses his life. For some of us, especially those of us with a tendency toward depression, the bad times will loom large, which may lead to depression and even despair.  For those of us raised in forms of unhealthy religion, such as religious fundamentalism, we may feel unworthy, that God hates us, even as we may have come to hate ourselves.

For more of us moderns, the question is not whether God hates us, but whether God exists at all, in a universe that often seems empty and uncaring. Those of us who have never experienced extreme doubts or depression may never understand people who do, especially those who do to thoughts of suicide.  To such people, those of us who are of a more optimistic disposition always want to say, there is help, there is hope; but sometimes, in the dark night of the soul, there is only darkness.

For most of us, the remembrance of better times will trump the bad, and faith, light, and hope will prevail. That’s what happens to the writer of Psalm 77, as he remembers the good things, the great things, God has done:

Once again I’ll go over what God has done,
lay out on the table the ancient wonders;
I’ll ponder all the things you’ve accomplished,
and give a long, loving look at your acts.

O God! Your way is holy! No god is great like God!
You’re the God who makes things happen;
you showed everyone what you can do—
You pulled your people out of the worst kind of trouble,
rescued the children of Jacob and Joseph. (Psalm 77: 11 – 15, The Message)

He recalls salvation history.  In the Old Testament, for Jews, that was what God did at the Red Sea when he saved Israel from the Egyptians, by parting the sea. It’s an event described in mythological terms, and celebrated not only throughout the Old Testament, but to this day in such basic Jewish household rituals as the Sabbath and the Passover Seder.  For us Christians, God’s unfailing power and goodness was definitively revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

But what about us, in our lives? The temptation at times of trouble is only to remember the bad, and not to remember and give thanks for the good. If we do that, we often discover it is never as bad as we think, that what may seem like the end is never the end, and that our lives are finally more blessed than we appreciate. One of my favorite spiritual mentors, scholar of religions, Huston Smith, now at the age of 94, says his most common daily prayer has become, “God, you are so good to me.”

Even in Psalm 77, the Psalmist’s recital of God’s saving presence contains a line that is unique: “Your footprints were not seen.” (literally, not known). Is this the psalmist’s way of observing that God’s marvelous work in our lives, may often be invisible in its occurrence? God is at work, but often beyond our seeing and knowing.

One of the hymns inspired by Psalm 77 is one we rarely sing anymore, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” by the English poet William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) (1731–1800), which he wrote  in 1774.  (It was in our last United Methodist Hymnal, but not the current one.) It is reportedly the last hymn Cowper ever wrote, with a fascinating through unsubstantiated story behind it.

Cowper suffered throughout his life from depression and doubt, deepened by a religious view that stressed the wrath of God; leading him to feel at times that God had predestined him to damnation.

The story goes that one night he de­cid­ed to com­mit su­i­cide, by drown­ing him­self. So he called a cab and told the driv­er to take him to the Thames Riv­er. How­ev­er, thick fog came down and pre­vent­ed them from find­ing the riv­er (ano­ther ver­sion of the story has the driv­er get­ting lost de­liber­ate­ly). After driv­ing around lost for a while, the cab­by fin­al­ly stopped and let Cow­per out. To Cowper’s sur­prise, he found him­self on his own door­step: he concluded God had sent the fog to keep him from kill­ing him­self. Unseen and unknown, even in our black­est mo­ments, God watch­es over us.

Here’s verses 1 & 3 of the hymn:

God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm. 

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break in blessings on your head.

Not a bad song for a sleepless night.  Amen.

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