The wind has dropped, but we can still hear the sea from the rectory garden this morning. But yesterday afternoon as we slipped out for an isolated walk to the coastal path, and on Saturday, the waves were crashing in as they have done for ever. Several columnists, in the newspaper nature notes in the past few days, have tried to evoke a sense that what has happened for thousands, maybe millions, of years is still happening around us, while we become more and more (and quite rightly) focused on the hour in which we are living, on changing our pattern of life, to physically distance ourselves from others, and at the same time be ever more mindful of their welfare and ours, as we enhance our care for family and friends and neighbours, as illness and loneliness becomes the reality for more and more people.
Continuance and immediacy are brought to the forefront of the psalmist’s mind as the words pour forth in Psalm 77; one of those appointed for this morning. The sea is there too, in this vivid psalm (“Your way was in the sea, and your paths in the great waters, but your footsteps were not known”) that has been described as, “the prayer of a perplexed man”. What we read are words that reflect the thought that there have been great days for the nation in the past, but for no apparent reason things are not what they once were. This psalm shows that sometimes, in the Psalter, we have expressions of helplessness, and descriptions of how things are to the writer’s mind, without any conclusion. He offers no answer.
Now this is not the same as saying that the psalm is without hope. What the author reveals is his state of mind. That is, as one that holds to the sustaining power and majesty of God, but just can’t understand what is happening at the moment, or resolve the whole thing satisfactorily. He is confused; he is perplexed. This reveals itself, as such, as a real prayer: “I think upon God and I groan; I ponder and my spirit faints.”
The question for us today as we read this psalm is, “Does this help or hinder us as we face the crisis that is the coronavirus pandemic?” It contains what we would describe as the power of lament. An expression of inner confusion in the face of trouble, which releases us to ground ourselves more and more firmly on the underlying bedrock of our faith, rather than on passing successes and immediate feelings of strength and wellbeing.
This tradition of lament from ancient Hebrew sources, is one that we may find strength in, as we feel helpless in listening to the news. We are reminded from this that, in fact, there is much that we can and must do, not least to continue faithfully to reach out in prayer. So scratching beneath the surface of this text appointed for this morning, is a positive call to turn confusion and perplexity into a concern, which may reveal itself in lament for the many who are suffering, and a turning of heart and mind to the Good Shepherd, whose ways may be lost to sight in the great waters, but nonetheless are still experienced in his guidance - as ever! Praise him!
The reflective conclusion that is offered in Common Worship after Psalm 77, is the following:
God our shepherd,
you led and saved us in times of old;
do not forget your people in their troubles,
but raise up your power
to sustain the poor and helpless;
for the honour of Jesus Christ our Lord.