A Summer in the Psalms
Psalm 130 was our Psalm for last Sunday morning. The nature of the “depths” out of which the Psalmist cried is not specified in this Psalm. I think that’s a good thing. It allows each one of us to fill in the meaning of the “depths” with our own content. The “depths” can have reference to the isolation of our sin for some of us and the pit of despair that traps others of us. It can be about the hole of helplessness and hopelessness that some of us tumble into when adversity periodically comes knocking on our door, or it can be about the dark abyss of emptiness and meaninglessness where others of us live almost all of the time. “Depths” can refer to so many things. But the “depths” are not the point of this Psalm; they’re just the catalyst. The whole point of this Psalm is the response, the “crying out.” The fact that there will be “depths” in our lives is not enough to generate a Psalm. No, Psalms get written only because there is someone there to whom we can cry out from our “depths,” someone whom we know will listens, someone whom we know cares, and someone whom we know can and will respond with an abundant supply of mercy to our cries for help. The reserves of God’s love are sufficiently deep to be able to match any “depth” into which we might sink. As Corrie ten Boom used to say – “No matter how deep the pit, God is deeper still.”
Lewis Smedes (1921-2002) was a Professor of Theology and Ethics at the school in Southern California where I began seminary, and while I did not have a class with him, he nevertheless exerted a huge influence on my thinking and believing through his writings. I have given away more copies of his book Forgive and Forget than any other book in the years of my ministry, and his essay “If You Fall into Hell, You May Land in the Hand of God” ( How Can It Be All Right When Everything Is All Wrong? A Shaw Book. 1982. pp. 161-177) has been spiritually defining for me.
Lewis Smedes suffered from depression. He wrote about it briefly in his spiritual memoir, My God and I (Eerdmans. 2003. pp.131-133), just enough to let us know that he was more than just a little familiar with the “depths.” And in that essay that has had such a deep impact on me – “If You Fall into Hell, You May Land in the Hand of God” – Lewis Smedes wrote more fully about his experience of depression and what he learned about God when he cried out from his “depths.” “I discovered the old Hebrew verse-maker was right,” he explained, “you can lie down in hell and find yourself in the hand of God” [Psalm 139:8 – “If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there.”] (162).
Lewis Smedes had gone to a cottage on an island in the Puget Sound one fall to “consult with his soul.” When he retired from teaching at Fuller and was asked about what he was going to do with his time, Lewis Smedes always answered “I am going to develop a closer friendship with God.” That’s what he was doing on that little island off the Washington coast. He had gone there to clear the clutter that had clogged the valves of his deeper feelings for so long. There were no diversions – no ball games to listen to on the radio, no news to watch on TV, no magazine or newspapers to leisurely read, no Mozart to listen to before dinner, no telephone calls to make or take. Just days and days of silence and solitude – Lewis Smedes alone with his God. And in the middle of the second week of this, on Wednesday after noon at about 4 o’clock, God showed up.
I want to tell you how I felt God that warm afternoon on Fox Island, I want to tell you how that one hour’s experience has become a parable, for me, of how we can be sure, by experience, that it really can be all tight, in the center of life, when everything on the surface is hellish. (162)
Lewis Smedes cried out to God from his “depths,” and the Lord was “attentive to the voice of his supplications.” In his “depths,” Lewis Smedes discovered in his very own experience that “with the Lord there is loving kindness, and with Him is abundant redemption” (130:7).
I was in the hands of God. I could live by grace. I could lose all human support and not fall down. I was held and would not be dropped. I was supported and would not sink. I was held together and would not fall apart. I was accepted and could not be rejected. I was loved and would never be despised. I was in hell, and God was there for me. (170)
This is what the Psalmist waited, and hoped, and watched for. It’s what we all wait, and hope, and watch for when we sink into the “depths.” When the pit is deep, we need to know that we are safe in the hands of someone whose love for us is even deeper. This was Lewis Smedes’ discovery on a Wednesday afternoon during his retreat on that island in the Puget Sound.
We can feel God in our hells, beneath us, around us, to hold us up and hold us together when we are sinking into bottomless pit of our own undoing. (162)
I do not recommend hell… Hell, anyone’s hell, hurts too much…But there is a chance that you may have to make your bed in hell, sometime, and you may feel as if you had fallen there before your time, alone, helpless, everything gone wrong at the core, instant Godforsakenness. If you do, or when you do, you may, as I did, feel God closer to you than when everything was heavenly. God is there, ahead of time, before you get there, waiting, hands open, to hold you when you are sinking. You will feel his presence, feel his strength, feel the courage that comes from his support, if you just let him hold you. And when you do feel him, you will know that it will be all right with you, at that moment, later, or anytime. (176-177)
And for this I hope, and watch, and wait, more than watchmen for the morning; more than watchmen for the morning. DBS+