The apostle Paul tells us to pray without ceasing, which could mean reaching a spiritual maturity in which prayer comes as natural to us as breathing. Or maybe sometimes it means we can’t stop praying until God has proven that he’s heard us and bothered to do something about the hurt we find ourselves in. That is how Psalm 77 prays. “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God that he may hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.” (Psalm 77:1-2) Psalm 77 is the stuff of prison cells and job loss, of cancer diagnoses and abuse victims, of marriages on the brink of divorce. It is the battle cry for anyone whose life and spirit are hanging by a thread. The Psalmist wants no cheap comfort. In Psalm 77, we’re just waiting, standing here with outstretched arms, wanting nothing less than God’s real intervention in our lives.
Not only is Psalm 77 honest enough to dwell in the hurt without immediately looking for a silver lining, but honest enough to lay blame at God’s own feet. This crying out to God comes at the expense of the Psalmist’s sleep. Eyelids are not closing. And this insomnia could be cured by God at any time, but it’s as if God is the very one making it happen. Suddenly in the psalm we are entertaining the worst case scenario: “Will the Lord spurn forever and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love ceased forever?” (Ps 77:7-8) Psalm 77 is giving us permission to feel what we feel. In the presence of such hurt, the kid gloves come off. God is getting our unfiltered angst, whatever that angst has to say. If the worst case scenario comes to mind, we can push through it with positivity and confidence, or we can yell at God about it. The Psalms give us both options.
But this desperation is not defeat. Psalm 77, in spite of being so bothered by God’s inaction, will not allow us to wave a white flag. So in this state of limbo, where help is desperately needed, the Psalmist engages in the practice of sacred memory. “I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD.” (77:11) We tell ourselves the old stories. We place the hurt within the right context, that is, the stories of a faithful, powerful, redeeming God who works wonders. If that weren’t the God our hands reach out for, we wouldn’t bother reaching out in the first place. And when we say memory, when we tell ourselves the old stories, it is one story in particular that the Psalms tell and retell. “Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” (77:19-20) For Israel, the Exodus is THE story, the defining moment in God’s history with his people. We do not practice sacred memory in order to indulge in nostalgia, or to escape the present moment. We practice memory because forgetfulness is a grave sin for the people of God.
So Psalm 77 keeps our hand outstretched. In the midst of hurt, we will engage in the practice of sacred memory. It has never been in God’s character to abandon hurting people. Whatever stress and grief and trouble we find ourselves in right now, and whatever laments and angry shouts need to prayerfully pour out of us, we know what kind of God is hearing us.