Psalm 154: Seeking Hope in a Depressing Time
by Jack Wald | September 13th, 2020

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In March 2010 the Moroccan government arrived at the Village of Hope, a home for abandoned children, and with just seven hours to say goodbye to their children and pack a few things, they were taken under police guard to the airport hotel in Casablanca, kept over night under police guard, and the next day taken under police guard to planes that flew them out of the country. These children were abandoned at birth and then once again abandoned when the government took their parents away. Ten years later, these parents are still not able to live with their children in their homes.

For ten years the parents had taken in abandoned children, almost all of them just a few days old when they arrived. The parents took in a maximum of eight children and raised them as their own children. This was not an institutional home; it was a community of families. The children called their parents “Mommy” and “Daddy”. Homes were built for these families. A dining hall was built with a second floor for meetings and recreation. A school was started.

The Village of Hope was welcomed in the community. Local people helped with cleaning and cooking, with the construction of the buildings, the repairs. Local businesses benefited with the purchases made for the people who lived at the Village of Hope and for the people who visited.

The caid and police chief encouraged the Village of Hope to take in more children and wanted their own children to come to the Village of Hope school. Teams who visited the Village of Hope began to make improvements to the local school in Ain Leuh. Rooms were painted, books were purchased, a furnace was installed to heat the school buildings during the winter.

All was well until suddenly, without warning, the police and military arrived to deport the parents of these children. There is a highly disturbing Youtube video of the children crying as the parents tried to comfort them in those last few hours.

I tell people that my twenty years in Morocco have been the best years of my life but 2010 was the worst year of my life.

I was chairman of the board of the Village of Hope. RIC made five bus trips a year, going up to the Village of Hope Saturday morning, working on the site during the day, and coming back in the evening. I made about eighteen visits a year to the Village of Hope. I told people that the reason I went up to the Village of Hope so often is because I wanted to visit my heart.

The parents were deported on March 7. The next day Elliot, Zak, and I drove up to Tangiers to talk with a student who was having some problems. During the day I had repeated conversations with Herman Boonstra, the director of the Village of Hope, while he waited in the hotel before he was escorted to his flight out of Morocco. We talked and cried on the phone.

When we stopped for lunch, I began to pray before we ate our meal and could not. I had lost my ability to trust in God. I was angry and bitter toward those who made the decision to deport the parents. I was angry and bitter toward those who carried out the decision. And I was angry and bitter toward God who had allowed this to happen.

I had such a strong sense that God was blessing the Village of Hope. I prayed often for protection. And then God allowed this to happen. How could I trust him for anything ever again?

I decided that I was going to preach about what I was feeling. This made Annie, my wife, and Tracy, the associate pastor, very nervous. They worried about what I would say. But I was determined that I was going to model how to deal with the strong emotions I was feeling.

Most times when people share their faith story, they talk about some time in the past when they had a difficulty but then they finish by saying how wonderfully and powerfully God worked in their lives.

That is not how the psalms were written. The psalmist talked about what he was feeling in the moment and sometimes the psalm ends without resolution. Sometimes the psalmist is just as angry or bitter at the end of the psalm as he was in the beginning.

As I preached through this painful season of my life, I began to experience healing. I began to have at least a limited trust in God. That healing process took time; it was not immediate. And remarkably, in the year following the deportations I discovered that my faith in God had deepened. That is what happens when we hang on to Jesus in difficult times.

Now, in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, I am again feeling strong emotions. I am discouraged. I am slightly depressed. I am depressed. Je suis déprimé. (It sounds better in French.) However you rate what I am feeling, it is deep and intense, like a nagging pain that will not go away.

I started off strong but after six months of covid-19 restrictions, it is getting to me. I wake up in the morning and don’t want to get on with the tasks of the day. I woke up last Sunday and did not want to go to church. There have been times when the sadness of all that is going on has become so much that I have wanted to cry.

So what should I do. Should I keep preaching? Actually, it is preparing a sermon and preparing for the Romans study on Wednesday nights that keeps my head above water. But once again, I am determined to preach through the emotions of this season.

Over the years I have preached from the Old Testament each fall. For the past two falls we have preached from Isaiah and ended last fall with sermons from Isaiah 40 and 41. Elliot and I talked about this and we want to continue with Isaiah this fall. There are such brilliant passages of hope and we need the encouragement these passages bring to us. But we also need to focus on expressing the emotional turmoil we are experiencing. So we will be alternating between Isaiah and the Psalms until we come to Advent, the four-Sunday season before Christmas.

Why will we focus on Psalms this fall in addition to continuing with sermons from Isaiah?

We can read Paul’s letters and be impressed with the theology of Romans and Ephesians. We can read the Gospels and be amazed at the life of Jesus and how he related to people. We can read these books of the Bible and absorb the truths without it reaching into our hearts. But the Psalms are different. We read such raw emotion, moving from depression and despair to praise and giddy elation. We read about anger and a thirst for revenge. We read about surrender and contentment.

The Psalms are not for nice people. The Psalms are for real people trying to deal with all that life throws at them, trying to deal with their own weaknesses, and trying to draw closer to God.

In the sermons this fall we will focus on some of the psalms, but this morning I want to encourage you to write your own psalm – or psalms – this fall.

Because of how I have been feeling these past few months, I decided to write a psalm a week or two ago – in covid time that is about as precise as I can be since days and weeks blur together. I will come to this in a bit, but first I want to talk about why it is helpful for us to write our own psalms.

First, writing a psalm makes us aware of what we are feeling.

When I take the time to identify what I am feeling and take the time to write out what I am feeling, I become more aware of my need for God. If I don’t do this, then my emotional state rules me.

I wake up in the morning feeling upset, depressed, angry, disturbed – whatever the emotion is – and that mood stays with me all day long. It affects the way I treat the people I encounter in my daily life. It affects how I handle decisions during the day. I may eat more than I had wanted to, trying to fill an emotional need with food. I may snap at someone, not so much because of what they did or said, but because of this unexamined, underlying emotion.

I am being ruled by my emotions and will be ruled by my emotions until I take time to identify what I am feeling and why I am feeling that way.

Writing a psalm is one way to do this.

Second, writing a psalm draws me into intimacy with God.

If I am angry but don’t talk to God about my anger, my anger will block my intimacy with God. If you are in a relationship with someone and hide part of who you are or what you are feeling, then the intimacy in the relationship suffers. This is just as true with God as it is with other people you are in relationship with.

Hiding what we are thinking from God makes no sense, of course. God knows our thoughts before we speak them. So God knows all the negative emotions we feel. It is not that we are telling God anything that he does not already know.

When we take time to identify what we are feeling and express what we are feeling to God, then our heart is open to him and deeper intimacy is possible.

As I identify what I am feeling and describe it, the door is opened for God to come in. As I write about what I am feeling, the feeling will become more intense and I may find myself writing on and on. But eventually I come to the end and put down my pen. There is nothing more to say. And now that I have emptied myself, there is room for God to enter.

You see this in many psalms, for example, Psalm 55. David is feeling betrayed by a close friend and is now in pain. He begins by describing what he is feeling.

Listen to my prayer, O God, 
do not ignore my plea; 
2 hear me and answer me. 
My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught 
3 because of what my enemy is saying, 
because of the threats of the wicked; 
for they bring down suffering on me 
and assail me in their anger. 

David is troubled and distraught, but this is just the tip of the iceberg of his emotional state that needs to be expressed.

My heart is in anguish within me; 
the terrors of death have fallen on me. 
5 Fear and trembling have beset me; 
horror has overwhelmed me. 

From troubled and distraught he moved to anguish, terror, fear and trembling, and horror. The depth of his feelings make him strike out.

Lord, confuse the wicked, confound their words, 
for I see violence and strife in the city. 
10 Day and night they prowl about on its walls; 
malice and abuse are within it. 
11 Destructive forces are at work in the city; 
threats and lies never leave its streets. 

As he goes deeper and deeper into what he is feeling he comes to the deepest hurt.

If an enemy were insulting me, 
I could endure it; 
if a foe were rising against me, 
I could hide. 
13 But it is you, a man like myself, 
my companion, my close friend, 
14 with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God,
as we walked about among the worshipers. 

David was betrayed by a close friend and he pours out his anger and bitterness with this curse.

Let death take my enemies by surprise; 
let them go down alive to the realm of the dead,
for evil finds lodging among them. 

Is this the end? It seems so. David begins to talk about God’s faithfulness to him.

As for me, I call to God, 
and the Lord saves me. 
17 Evening, morning and noon 
I cry out in distress, 
and he hears my voice. 
18 He rescues me unharmed 
from the battle waged against me, 
even though many oppose me. 

But David stopped prematurely. His bitterness toward his friend who betrayed him returns and he pours out verbal venom on this betrayer.

My companion attacks his friends; 
he violates his covenant. 
21 His talk is smooth as butter, 
yet war is in his heart; 
his words are more soothing than oil, 
yet they are drawn swords. 

Has David emptied himself so God can work? Once again, it seems so.

Cast your cares on the Lord 
and he will sustain you; 
he will never let the righteous be shaken. 

But David still has room to go. He cannot finish his psalm without returning once again to a call for God to avenge him.

But you, O God, will bring down the wicked 
into the pit of decay; 
the bloodthirsty and deceitful
will not live out half their days. 

David ends his psalm with:

But as for me, I trust in you.

Do you see the process David went through? As he wrote, the intensity of what he was feeling was expressed and he began to come to a point of rest with God. Then he took a step back, expressed a deeper pain and then came again to some sort of resolution. I think he had more to write. It seems there was still pain to be explored, but this is a process, not a one-time fix.

Writing a psalm is not a neat exercise. Sometimes psalm after psalm has to be written to express the depth of what I am feeling. But as I write, I come closer and closer to the point of being empty so God can come in and work in me. It is a process and each step of the process is helpful. As I continue, I will be drawn into intimacy with God.

Third, writing a psalm brings what is hidden out of the dark and into the light where God can begin to heal and mend.

When you surrender to Jesus and accept his gift of salvation, you are filled with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit begins to work in you and with you to clean and mend the mess of your life. But you still have the keys to doors that are locked. Even after your initial surrender, you have locked doors and God will not force you to open them. You have to choose to surrender once again and open those doors. This is a process that will go on and on, to the end of your earthly life.

You have to express a fear and then the Holy Spirit can work with you to give you the love you need to overcome that fear. You have to express a feeling of inadequacy or incompetency and then the Holy Spirit can work with you to find that you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. You have to bring out a painful memory that you have repressed so that the Holy Spirit can begin to heal the hurts that resulted from that experience.

Writing psalms opens up your life so God can work in you.

Writing a psalm makes me aware of what I am feeling. Writing a psalm draws me into intimacy with God. Writing a psalm will help keep me honest in my relationship with God. Writing a psalm brings what is hidden out of the dark and into the light where God can begin to heal and mend.

In the time left, let me help you with some thoughts about how to write a psalm.

The first place to start is to sit down where you will not be disturbed and think. Get quiet and ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” This is the most critical part of writing a psalm, identifying what it is you are feeling.

Being angry, frustrated, happy, grateful, worried, apathetic, depressed, hopeful, loved, bitter; all these are good places to start with your psalm. In fact, whatever you are feeling is the best place to start when you write your psalm. A psalm is not written with your head but with your heart.

Make a series of notes about what you are feeling. Describe the feeling you have. Use a picture to describe your feeling. “I am happy like a kite soaring in the wind,” or “I am angry like a tornado about to rip apart a house in its path.” Psalm 42 begins with this:
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God.

What are some other ways you can describe how you are feeling? Explore the depths of your feeling. Find a number of ways to describe your feeling. You may not use them all, but they will help you to articulate your feeling. Put flesh and depth on what you are feeling.

Then try to explain why it is you are feeling this way. If you are happy, what has happened that made you happy? If you are worried, what is it you are worried about? If you are bitter, what happened that made you bitter?

If your psalm is a happy or joyful one, let it erupt into wonderful praise of God who has blessed you.

If your psalm started out with worry or anger or depression or apathy, work your way to the point that you have expressed the feeling as completely as you can and then sit. Put the pen down and think.

Where has the expression of your feeling taken you? Think through other times in your life when you have felt this way? What happened in those times?

Can you think of how God was faithful to you in the past when you felt this way? Remember those experiences. Describe them.

If you have expressed fully the way you are feeling, you will get to the point where you will be able to surrender to God and submit to his will. This will take you from anger or bitterness or apathy or discouragement to recognition of God’s goodness to you and you will be able to end in praise with hope.

Some Psalms do not end that way. So if you write a psalm and get to the end and you are still feeling angry or depressed, then write another and try to more completely express what it is you are feeling.

Let me present some cautions for you as you write.

  1. Be honest about how you feel. The less honest you are, the less helpful this exercise will be to you. Don’t hold back. Don’t be afraid that someone else might see what you wrote. After you write the psalm you can always destroy it. No one needs to see or hear what you have written. This is an exercise for you and not necessarily for the rest of the world.

Sometimes it is difficult to be honest with yourself, so start with what you are feeling and make sure you get to the bottom of that feeling.

  1. Let what you write be a prayer to God that allows you to feel heard. The benefit of such an exercise is that you clarify to God what it is you are experiencing and that helps you to know you have been heard.
  2. Don’t try to impress God with how wonderful you are. First of all, God loves you deeply, despite all your weaknesses and imperfections. You don’t have to impress God so he will love you. God already loves you passionately.

So let down your guard, let out all the things you are feeling, even and especially the things you try to hide from yourself. There will never be a safer place to do this than in the presence of God who loves you and wants you in his kingdom.

  1. Don’t be afraid of hurting God’s feelings. God has big shoulders. When the Sons of Korah wrote Psalm 44 and said this,
    Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?
    Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
    24 Why do you hide your face
    and forget our misery and oppression?
    do you think God was hurt by their accusation that he was sleeping on the job and had forgotten about their suffering?

God can handle whatever it is you are feeling so get it out and put it down so you can begin to deal with it. I am saying this over and over again, but it is critical. Until you fully express what you are feeling, in all honesty, you cannot move to an authentic relationship with God. There is nothing you can say about God that God has not heard many times before. God is not unaware of the intensity of your feeling. Writing down what you feel is not telling God something he does not already know. Writing down what you feel is helping you to be honest and more open to God.

  1. You don’t have to share with others what you write, but when you write your psalm and you have been true to your feelings, chances are your psalm will speak to others in a similar situation. So don’t be afraid to share what you wrote with some friends.

Here is the psalm I wrote.

Psalm 154

I wake up in the morning in the sand pit.
This is not where I want to be, but it is where I am.
I start out climbing but as I step up, I slide back.
With effort and endurance I make progress 
but then another load of sand is dumped into the pit 
and I am back at the bottom.

The weight of the world is too much for me.

Racial tensions that see others as “them” and
push against “them” to preserve “us”.
The injustice of the judicial system and penal system.
The injustice of life that gives some babies unfair advantages 
as they begin their race through life - 
leaving other babies behind 
who will have to struggle all their lives 
just trying to catch up.
The injustice of the rich getting richer 
and the poor getting poorer.

Self-centered politicians
caring only for themselves
caring only for their tribe with
disregard for the suffering of others.

Struggling marriages
financial pressures

Church scandals
Christian hypocrisy
Christian indifference

Celebrating from a distance
Mourning from a distance
Hugging from a distance
Sharing a meal from a distance

How do I get out of this pit?

March moved into April into June and July and August 
and now it is September. 
Time has passed but it has stood still. 
There are distant memories of the past 
but in six months the scenery has not changed.

Plans made
are plans that will be crushed.
With no plans
there are no possibilities
and with no possibilities
there is no future.

I am stuck in the ongoing present.
As with Sisyphus, I step up and slide back.

Help me to see more than the sand around me.
Help me to see the life that is being created.
Help me to see progress,
that we are not stuck
that we are moving into your kingdom.

I began with an image trying to express the tedium of day after day living with covid-19 restrictions. I have climbed up the dunes on our Lenten Desert Retreats and it takes a lot of effort to get to the top of a steep sand dune.

I wake up in the morning in the sand pit.
This is not where I want to be, but it is where I am.
I start out climbing but as I step up, I slide back.
With effort and endurance I make progress 
but then another load of sand is dumped into the pit 
and I am back at the bottom.

In this image, I step up and slide back. It is difficult to make progress. What causes me to keep sliding back?

The weight of the world is too much for me.

The weight I feel is not just my own private life, it is the worldwide situation that keeps adding more sand and pushes me down to the bottom of the pit.

It is not just that there are covid-19 restrictions. There are economic consequences of the lockdown that has taken place in the countries of the world which adds stress to life.

And then at the same time as this pandemic the world, particularly the white world, has woken up to the racial injustice that has existed for a long time but now with videos is being revealed. I have known about this injustice for a long time. But it has been raised in our consciences and the ugliness of this reality is highly disturbing. So I wrote about what weighs me down.

Racial tensions that see others as “them” and
push against “them” to preserve “us”.
The injustice of the judicial system and penal system.
The injustice of life that gives some babies unfair advantages 
as they begin their race through life - 
leaving other babies behind 
who will have to struggle all their lives 
just trying to catch up.
The injustice of the rich getting richer 
and the poor getting poorer.

Part of the pain is that the world is shrinking into small tribes that care for each other but not for people outside of their tribe. Paul encourages us in Philippians to think more of each other than we do of ourselves. The opposite of this is happening and that is highly stressful.

Self-centered politicians
caring only for themselves
caring only for their tribe with
disregard for the suffering of others.

The political situation in the world adds even more stress to our lives. When we have leaders who love power but do not have compassion, our world becomes more dangerous.

With all this stress, our relationships become strained. Marriage is not easy, it requires work, and there are always things that create stress and strain in marriage relationships. Tim Keller talks about marriage being a ten-ton truck driving over an old bridge. The hairline fractures in the bridge are revealed by the heavier weight on the bridge.

So there are always stresses in a marriage relationship, but when these happen during a pandemic and social upheaval, the truck becomes heavier and marriage stresses become greater. So I wrote:

Struggling marriages
financial pressures

One of the consequences of covid-19 has been the financial pressure on the church. We have had to cut our budget by 54% and that adds to the stress I feel.

In the midst of all this we would hope that the church would stand up for justice, but we see the church becoming tribal just like society. We see the weaknesses of the church when what we need to see is the church being a strong force for justice in the communities of the world. I feel let down by the church, so I wrote:

Church scandals
Christian hypocrisy
Christian indifference

Family is meant to be a supportive unit for us and when the Bible was written, families lived together – three of four generations living in the same home. But now with the technology of the world, we are separated far from each other and that leaves us feeling alone. We are still supported by our extended families, but at a distance.

Celebrating from a distance
Mourning from a distance
Hugging from a distance
Sharing a meal from a distance

How do I get out of this pit?

That is the question.

But day after day, we are trapped. We are restricted in where we can travel. Time seems to stand still and we have difficulty distinguishing between the days of the week.

March moved into April into June and July and August 
and now it is September. 
Time has passed but it has stood still. 
There are distant memories of the past 
but in six months the scenery has not changed.

Because the covid-19 restrictions keep changing, any plans we make are very likely to have to be changed. Last week I had planned to meet with five of the older Village of Hope young men to help them with some training about personality, strengths, and how to move from institutional life to taking care of themselves. I had a hotel reservation for them, but at the last minute the caid in Meknes would not give them permission to travel to Rabat. And I could not get permission to travel to Meknes. I wrote in my psalm,

Plans made
are plans that will be crushed.
With no plans
there are no possibilities
and with no possibilities
there is no future.

And here I reverted to Greek mythology with Sisyphus. In Greek mythology Sisyphus was king of Corinth who was punished by the gods by having to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back again to the bottom. Sisyphus spent an eternity laboring each day, pushing the same boulder up the same hill, day after day after day.

I am stuck in the ongoing present.
As with Sisyphus, I step up and slide back.

The truth is that I was not able to come to a healthy resolution for the depression I feel, so I ended with a plea.

Help me to see more than the sand around me.
Help me to see the life that is being created.
Help me to see progress,
that we are not stuck
that we are moving into your kingdom.

As I said, over the Sundays of this fall we will preach from Isaiah as well as some of the psalms. I hope you will take time to add your own psalms to the ones we study this fall. It is clear to me that I need to continue writing some psalms.

I would love it if you would share with us the psalms you write. If you would like, you can share your psalm with me. And if it is ok with you, I may put it in the RICEmail to encourage others in our community.

Remember, the goal is not to write a psalm this week. The goal is to draw more intimately into your relationship with God who loves you.

There is hope for us in this. Remember that when we submit to Jesus we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The creative power and love of the Holy Spirit is in us, working in us, working to transform us into the holy men and women God created us to be.

This is why my struggle in 2010 resulted in a deepening of my faith. This is why there is always hope in Christian marriage. This is why there is hope for you, whatever it is you are feeling.

May God bless you as you open your heart to God.