RPM, Volume 19, Number 47 November 19 to November 25, 2017

Song of a Silent Sky

Psalms 22:1-31

By Roger Allen Nelson

Dear congregation in our Lord Jesus Christ,

Louie Zamperini ran in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Young and gifted he was training for the 1940 Olympics and closing in on the fabled four-minute mile when the United States entered World War II. Louie Zamperini, in turn, joined the Army Air Corps and became a decorated bombardier.

On a May afternoon in 1943, Louie took off on a search mission for a lost plane, but somewhere over the Pacific, the engines failed, and the plane plummeted into the sea, leaving Louie and two others stranded on a tiny raft. They drifted for weeks and thousands of miles, they endured starvation and desperate thirst, they battled sharks that jumped into the raft to drag them off, they survived a machine-gun attack from a Japanese plane, they rode out a typhoon with waves some forty feet high.

After about a month adrift at sea one of the men died, so Louie and his partner did what they knew to do. They knelt over the body, said all the good things they could think of to say about their friend, and then:

Louie wanted to give him a religious eulogy but didn't know how, so he recited disjointed passages that he remembered from movies, ending with a few words about committing the body to the sea. And he prayed… vowing that if God would save them, he would serve heaven forever.

That said, they slid their friend over the side of the raft and he sank into the vast open arms of the ocean.

Some of you know the rest of the story. Louie Zamperini is eventually picked up by the Japanese, survives two years in a sadistic prisoner of war camp, is freed when the war is over, marries, battles Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and alcoholism, gives his life to Jesus at a Billy Graham crusade, and starts camps for kids. Unbroken, the book that tells his story, is an unbelievable account of the resilience of the human spirit.

What I can't shake is the image of those men adrift at sea—no hope on any horizon, the sky lost in water as far as they can see. They wrapped their friend in the tattered scraps of a sun blistered canvas, they searched for something to say, they wanted to bless the dead with words of significance, they rummaged about in their memories, they were able to piece together a few phrases from the movies. Then under a silent sky they offered a word to God.

What would you dredge up? Left to your own devices what would come to mind to honor life and mark death? What song is under the surface? What lyrics are one flight down? Under a silent sky what would you piece together?

As many of you know, when Jesus hung on the cross he called to mind the haunting opening lines of Psalm 22. He cried out:

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.

Underneath a silent sky Jesus reached back into the collected songbook of his people and he breathed out lyrics of despair. You would think if Jesus was going to quote a psalm it would be the next one: Psalm 23.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…

But, in the Gospel Mark the only word that Jesus speaks is from Psalm 22. The only word that Jesus speaks is of abandonment. Now, what's astonishing to me is that the rest of the Psalm serves as a sort of template for the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus embodies not just the first line, but many of the other images in Psalm 22 are picked up by the gospel writer as he recounts the passion. For example:

7 All who see me make and hurl insults at me, shaking their heads. "He trusts in the Lord," they say, "let the Lord deliver him."

15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; You lay me in the dust of death.

16 They pierce my hands and feet…

18 They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.

The gospel accounts of the crucifixion read as if the writers had Psalm 22 open in front of them, providing a pattern for telling the story. That is not to suggest that Psalm 22 is prophecy, but it is more what some have described as "performing the psalm." It was a familiar framework; the images and details were part of a tradition that the readers knew. The gospel writers invite us to see the crucifixion through the filter of the psalm. They were pulling up a song that was already under the surface.

So, what are we to make of this?

I guess, first, that the experience of lament, loss, loneliness—a silent sky—is not an aberration. It's not the fault of the individual. It's not a test. It's not a failure of faith. Feeling abandoned by God is part of the whole of faith. A heart-breaking-heart-wrenching cry is as much a part of faith as hope is a part of faith. As James May puts it:

…. in his anguished cry to God when he begins to recite the psalm he (Jesus) joins the multitudinous company of the afflicted and becomes one with them in their suffering. In praying as they do, he expounds his total identification with them. He gives all of his followers who are afflicted permission and encouragement to pray for help. He shows that faith includes holding the worst of life up to God.

Maybe you know that cry. Maybe there were times when you were adrift, lost in anxiety and uncertainty with no sign of hope on the horizon. Maybe the black dog of depression was at your side and God was nowhere to be found. Maybe you've held the worst of life up to God, but all you heard was silence. This psalm makes space for that reality. It doesn't deny, doubt, or down play it, but it recognizes that despair is part of the human song.

But dear friends, while a biblical faith doesn't offer explanations for feeling deserted by God, it does provide resources for such experiences. In Psalm 22 we're given a song that Jesus joins, we're given lyrics of lament, we're given a pattern for lament. We're given a pattern….

Psalm 22 follows the familiar pattern of an individual lament which typically consists of five major elements:

The invocation—crying out to God to listen. The complaint—telling God what's wrong. The petition—telling God what you want God to do. The remembering—calling to mind what God has done in the past. The praise—celebrating the goodness and sovereignty of God

Psalm 22, with a few variations and repetitions, follows that pattern. It is a pattern for a spirituality that is not learned in an afternoon or gleaned through a diet of praise songs. It takes a lifetime, and probably the slow work of reading the Psalms, and corporate worship that uses the Psalms, and singing the Psalms, and learning a liturgy, and letting the Psalms shape you….

Lauren Winner was a bookish Jewish girl in cat-eye glasses who made a big splash with her memoir, Girl Meets God. It became the model for hipster spiritual autobiography and it made her a rising star for both evangelicals and the New York Times Book Review—a combination that is hard to pull off. Ten years later Lauren Winner is a professor at Duke Divinity School, cranking out books, has been married and divorced, and recently released a new memoir entitled, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.

This new book follows a pattern similar to Psalm 22. There are three movements: "Wall," when God seems wholly absent; "Movement," a period of uncertainty where she plumbs her discontent and receives comfort from friends, Scripture, and writers; and "Presence," during which God is real, though still elusive. She's learning that a biblical spirituality is often a cold and broken hallelujah.

In her words:

The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches since the dream, since the baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God's closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone …. Once upon a time, I thought I had arrived. Now I have arrived at a middle.

Now I have arrived at a middle. It is a wonderful line. Psalm 22 is not written in the rush of infatuation with God or in gleam and glitter of a shiny-happy-Jesus. Psalm 22 is written in the middle of faith –where we don't have all the answers, when you are adrift under a silent sky, when sometimes the best you can do is recall what God did in the past.

Because that is part of the pattern. There will be times of drift or depression but even as you voice that reality to God be reminded of what God has done in the past, be reminded that there is deliverance.

In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted you and you delivered them. They cried to you and were saved; In you they trusted and were not disappointed.

A biblical faith gives voice to despair, but it doesn't stay there. A biblical faith knows that being dead is part of the journey, but it's not the end. A biblical faith cries out to God in the present, but also recites and remembers what God did in the past.

Lewis Smedes puts it this way:

Let me share with you the pit, the bedrock of my faith on these matters, about where God is. This is how I see it.

Long ago, when the best and brightest of all the ages was at the end of his rope and it felt as if God had abandoned him, he asked the same question David asked in his time of trouble: Why? Why? And he got no answer, not in words. Heaven was silent again. No answer. Dead silence. He died without an answer from God.

But then, just three days later, before the fingers of the light had filtered through the mist of the morning, before the citizens of the city had finished their second snooze, the Almighty got into the grave where Jesus' body lay. And the power of his creative spirit began to move inside that dead corpse. Life began to pulsate again through its dead nerves and flow like energy through its arteries like a rush of warm power. And Jesus came alive.

Jesus asked the most painful question anybody can ever ask of God, and the answer came, not with words, but with an action; not in theory, but in life. In resurrection.

Dear friends, may the movement of Psalm 22 shape our life together. May we have the courage and the comfort of community to cry out to God. May we be given the resources to do so. May we remember what God has done in the past. May we call to mind the deliverance of God, the resurrection of God, and in that may we find strength, and even joy, to keep moving forward.

Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.

Prayer of response

Dear Father, we thank you for your word. May we have the courage and the comfort of community to cry out to God. May we be given the resources to do so. May we remember what God has done in the past. May we call to mind the deliverance of God, the resurrection of God, and in that may we find strength, and even joy, to keep moving forward. Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.

Sources Cited

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, Laura Hilenbrand, Random House, 2010

Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, Lauren F. Winner, Harper Collins, 2012

My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir, Lewis B. Smedes, Eerdmans Publishing, 2003

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