A week or so ago, I was talking about the weather in Wyoming and stated that spring was in June, summer was July and August, fall was the first few weeks of September, and everything else was winter. But I read a story that my wife Heather showed me a month or so ago about a people who lived in perpetual winter for forty years. It was not until a team of geologists was surveying the incredibly remote area of northern Russia that this family, the Lykovs, were found, a people forgotten by the Russian government and by time itself.
The story comes from the Smithsonian magazine:
The old man’s name was Karp Lykov, and he was an Old Believer–a member of a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, worshiping in a style unchanged since the 17th century. Old Believers had been persecuted since the days of Peter the Great, and Lykov talked about it as though it had happened only yesterday; for him, Peter was a personal enemy and “the anti-Christ in human form”—a point he insisted had been amply proved by Tsar’s campaign to modernize Russia by forcibly “chopping off the beards of Christians.” But these centuries-old hatreds were conflated with more recent grievances; Karp was prone to complain in the same breath about a merchant who had refused to make a gift of 26 poods of potatoes to the Old Believers sometime around 1900.
Things had only got worse for the Lykov family when the atheist Bolsheviks took power. Under the Soviets, isolated Old Believer communities that had fled to Siberia to escape persecution began to retreat ever further from civilization. During the purges of the 1930s, with Christianity itself under assault, a Communist patrol had shot Lykov’s brother on the outskirts of their village while Lykov knelt working beside him. He had responded by scooping up his family and bolting into forest.
That was in 1936, and there were only four Lykovs then—Karp; his wife, Akulina; a son named Savin, 9 years old, and Natalia, a daughter who was only 2. Taking their possessions and some seeds, they had retreated ever deeper into the taiga, building themselves a succession of crude dwelling places, until at last they had fetched up in this desolate spot. Two more children had been born in the wild—Dmitry in 1940 and Agafia in 1943—and neither of the youngest Lykov children had ever seen a human being who was not a member of their family. All that Agafia and Dmitry knew of the outside world they learned entirely from their parents’ stories. The family’s principal entertainment, the Russian journalist Vasily Peskov noted, “was for everyone to recount their dreams.”
The Lykov children knew there were places called cities where humans lived crammed together in tall buildings. They had heard there were countries other than Russia. But such concepts were no more than abstractions to them. Their only reading matter was prayer books and an ancient family Bible. Akulina had used the gospels to teach her children to read and write, using sharpened birch sticks dipped into honeysuckle juice as pen and ink. When Agafia was shown a picture of a horse, she recognized it from her mother’s Bible stories.
Living on the edge of famine, disease, and the ever-present threat of the harsh environment, the Lykov family managed to survive from 1936 until 1978 without seeing anyone from the outside world. Unfortunately, after reestablishing their connection to the outside the family members began to die off slowly one by one until now only one of the Lykovs, Agafia, lives alone in the simply hut, deep in the taiga of Siberian Russia.
Why Me Lord?
Our Psalm today, Psalm 13, is titled “For the music leader. A Song of David.” Perhaps, this was written by David and perhaps it is written about the stories of David’s life, no one really knows, but what we do know is that this particular psalm is one of trials and heartache. It is one crying out from in the face of great pain and difficulty. It is, in short, a lament.
So, what is a lament? One theologian sees it this way,
Lament is not despair. It is not whining. It is not a cry into a void. Lament is a cry directed to God. It is the cry of those who see the truth of the world’s deep wounds and the cost of seeking peace. It is the prayer of those who are deeply disturbed by the way things are … If we are to participate in God’s plan to reconcile all things in Jesus Christ, we must begin to listen to this cry. (Beckett 2016, 209)
A lament, in other words, is a recognition that something is wrong, whether it is with us or with another. It is a recognition that we direct toward God, in essence, agreeing with God that these circumstances are damaging and hurtful to ourselves or to others. It is an expression of passion and compassion where we see the suffering within ourselves and within others and call it what it is before God. As Rolf Jacobson puts it, “Psalm 13 is a prayer for when the bottom drops out.” (Jacobson 2017)
Laments and psalms seeking God’s help, like Psalm 13, make up roughly one-third of the Psalms in the Psalter. These psalms are the ‘crying out’ for God and his presence, an expression of the moments when our pain and anguish are at their greatest. Yet, as with all prayers and lamentation, there is a hope buried beneath the hurt.
Psalm 13 is a model prayer in that it models the lament or crying out prayers. Notice the first two verses of the psalm/prayer have a repetitive phrase, “How Long?”.
How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long will I be left to my own wits, agony filling my heart? Daily? How long will my enemy keep defeating me?
Notice in each of these phrases there is a certain fear that the Psalmist is expressing: being forgotten by God, being out of God’s presence, being left to fend for themselves, and finally, being defenseless before a greater enemy. These are the fears of someone who is facing an adversary that is continually beating them, one that is mercilessly coming after them, day after day. In these words, you can hear the fear, the frustration of one who feels that they have nowhere else to turn, no one else to go to. They are unable to overcome the enemy by their own power and are being beaten down by it.
The next two verses find the psalmist moving from fear to pure frustration, perhaps anger.
Look at me! Answer me, Lord my God! Restore sight to my eyes! Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I won!” My foes will rejoice over my downfall.
Imagine someone crying out for help and getting no response. “Look at me.” “Answer me.” These are the demanding words of someone desperate to be heard, desperate to know that their cries are not going unheeded. Not only do they cry out but they offer some rationale as to why they need the help they are demanding. If not, I’ll die and not only that but the enemy will assume they have defeated me and they will take pleasure in my death. By extension, the enemy will be making fun of God because God’s child has been overcome by them, rendering God a helpless façade rather than the Almighty. The conversation is as much about who the Psalmist thinks God should be in these moments of trial as what the enemy is doing and how the Psalmist is reacting. A god who cannot protect the ‘sheep of his pasture’ from the hands of their enemies is not much of a god. And yet do we truly understand what being protected by God is or are we so afraid of death that life can lose its meaning in the face of it.
A theology of The Dark Night
I think what might useful is to develop a theology of the Dark Night of the Soul. Many of us are familiar with this phrase, a text written by Saint John of the Cross, but more often than not we know little of the book. John wrote the book in the sixteenth century, a part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and yet, it continues to be read fervently by Protestants and Catholics alike. In the richly symbolic book, John writes initially, a poem of how the soul comes to mystic union with God.
The darkness in this poem is not that of trial and pain but of the unknowing as we journey with, to, and in the presence of God. Often, we think what is not seen as not being there and yet no one goes to find air with their sense of sight. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “No one chooses the dark night; the dark night descends. When it does, the reality that troubles the soul most is the apparent absence of God.” (Taylor 2014, 134) This is the absence that I believe the Psalmists is speaking of in the first four verses of Psalm 13. And yet, this absence may be seen as a great gift to us. It is, after the ideas of Saint John of the Cross,
“intended for our liberation. It is about freeing [us] from [our] ideas about God, [our] fears about God, [our] attachment to all the benefits [we] have been promised for believing in God, [our] devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make [us] feel closer to God, [our] dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, [our] positive and negative evaluations of [ourselves] as a believer in God, [our] tactics for manipulating God, and [our] sure cures for doubting God. All of these are substitutes for God” (Taylor 2014, 145)
They are in some sense a God of our own creating, a graven image of ourselves and our culture and our ideas that we can comfortably bow down to without fear of losing a self-made identity. Ultimately, we must tear these down and replace them with something else: The One True God.
But, how do we know when we have found the one true God and not another image created by self?
When the God we seek to worship is not a creation of selfish things. When the God we serve is not bound to our human weaknesses and desires. When the God we bow down to is not born of our prejudices, our fears, our baser instinct, and primal desires. In short, when we stop looking for our God, forcing an image of being and wait for the revelation of God to be before us and within us. Then we can say with the Psalmist,
“I have trusted in your faithful love.
My heart will rejoice in your salvation.
Yes, I will sing to the Lord
because he has been good to me.”
And no matter has happened to us, we will know it is true.
Beckett, Joshua. “Lament in three movements: the implications of Psalm 13 for justice and reconciliation.” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care, 2016: 207-218.
Harris, Glen E. “A wounded warrior looks at Psalm 13.” The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling, 2010: 1-2.
Jacobson, Rolf. Working Preacher: Commentary on Preaching Series on Psalms. Jun 11, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3270 (accessed Jun 06, 2017).
Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. Learning to Walk in the Dark. New York: Harper Collins, 2014.