My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you.Psalm 42:6
One of the unexpected ways that this pandemic is affecting me personally is that it is actually helping me to read familiar passages from scripture in a new way, often with a new and deeper understanding. One example of this is the psalm that I have been praying with this week, Psalm 42. Here are its opening lines:
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
I have always loved the poetic way that this author opens this psalm, describing our soul’s longing for God as a deer longing for flowing streams. Whenever I see a deer in our neighborhood, which is actually quite often, I think of these beautiful words. But this is a psalm of lament. These are the words of someone who is thirsty, and can’t find that flowing stream. Their tears have been their food. And they remember, with sadness, when they were able to go “in procession to the house of God.” We don’t know why the author of this psalm cannot go to the house of God, to the Temple, at this time. Is he or she sick? Are they living in exile? We don’t know, but what we do know is that their life circumstance is preventing them from doing what they most want – to go to the Temple – to that special, holy place where they can worship God with the multitude.
And that, I must say, is something that I can resonate with right now, as can many of you. It is now almost three months since we have been able to worship together (physically) in our beautiful church. Three months! I never could have imagined this! And it breaks my heart. We have been diligently offering online worship, along with a variety of other devotions, and I have been diligent in my personal prayer time, but I still miss worshiping with the multitude!
Worshiping on Sunday has been the place where our community comes together to see the events of the week in the light of the gospel, to pray for our community and world, and to be renewed in our commitment to strive for justice and peace in all the world. And we need this – community worship – more than ever right now. Our world is troubled, not just by the coronavirus, but also by the virus of racism, which has in truth always been present in our country, but now in a way that demands it be addressed by us all. But to do this not only with the courage and conviction that it requires, but also with the love and empathy that is needed, we need the church. And it saddens me that the coronavirus continues to keep us away from the very thing most needed.
All this is simply to say that I find myself cast down right now, in the words of this psalm; my soul is disquieted. I can empathize with the message of this psalm more profoundly than perhaps ever before. The lament expressed so movingly in this psalm has now become my lament.
But this is not just a psalm of lament. It is also a psalm of hope. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” The psalmist asks. “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” In this psalm, we are invited to hope, and to trust that there will come a day when we, too, will again praise God together.
Hope is such an important aspect of our faith, not only to encourage us in difficult times, but to motivate us to work toward better times. One of the things that I have always found most inspiring about Martin Luther King Jr. is that he never gave up hope. No matter the challenges he faced, and they were more than I can fathom, he never gave up hope. “We must accept finite disappointment,” he famously said, “but never lose infinite hope.” And that infinite hope comes only from one source: our infinite God.
When we are cast down, for whatever reason, we are reminded in this psalm to hope in God, to trust in God, and to remember all that God has done for us. I love the next part of this psalm, which shows us how important it is simply to remember:
My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me. By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
“My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember.” It is always remarkable to me to think of how important remembering is in scripture. You could argue that God’s word is about remembering more than anything else – remembering what God has done, in creation, in the rescue from Egypt, in the promised land and in exile. And in the New Testament, remembering what Jesus has done for us. As he himself puts it in the institution of the Lord’s Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
What do you need to remember right now? What do I need to remember? I know that for me, remembering what God has done for me when I have faced difficult challenges helps me to face these new challenges. I have been keeping a spiritual journal now for over fifteen years, and it has been so helpful for me to be able to look through it occasionally and remember what God has done in my life over the years. I can turn to any given year and read about the trials that I was going through, but also about how God was helping me to go through those trials. The same God that helped me then, I can reasonably believe, will help me now. And that always renews my hope.
“My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember,” said the psalmist. Precisely when our souls are cast down, in other words, is when we most need to remember! And isn’t this a good time to do this, to remember? To remember all that the God of “infinite hope” has done for us?
So, I hope that we can be patient with ourselves when we find our souls “cast down” these days. But also that we not give up our hope. For there will come a day when all of us – all of humanity – will come together as one to worship and praise our God of infinite hope and endless love. And as we work toward that day now, with hope, and with faith, and with love, we can find encouragement by remembering all that God has done and promises yet to do. May our remembering of these things fill us with hope, but also with longing – the longing of the deer for the flowing streams, and the longing of our souls for God.