Home » Sermons » Old Testament » Of Our Aloneness and God’s Love

 

Of Our Aloneness and God’s Love

 

Psalm 62

 

I: — How “alone” are you? How “alone” do you feel? As alone as the psalmist? “For God alone my soul waits in silence.”         “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He only is my rock, my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly moved.”

William Stringfellow, the American Anglican lawyer whose grasp of theology (he was self-taught) was as precise as grasp of the law (he was taught at Harvard Law School); Stringfellow, like any Harvard Law graduate, was offered elegance and luxury yet preferred to open a store-front law practice in Harlem among the dispossessed of that slum.         Why did he do this? Why not leave that kind of law practice to less talented lawyers who couldn’t maintain a practice among “choosier” and more affluent clients in any case? Stringfellow said it was on account of his vocation; while he was a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics he had learned the difference between career and vocation.

Stringfellow’s isolation in his vocation, however intense, was considerably less than his isolation in church and society.  For instance, he campaigned ardently in the 1960s to have women ordained in the Anglican church of the USA , the campaign coming to a climax in Washington Cathedral where a disdainful bishop treated him like a non-entity.  A year or two later the FBI arrested him for harbouring Father Daniel Berrigan, a high-profile protester against the Viet Nam war. Stringfellow’s former law partner told me, when Maureen and I were last in New York City, that Stringfellow was devastated at the prospect of going to prison, in view of what happens to small, slightly-built men in prison.  In one of his fourteen books Stringfellow spoke of what it is to be alone, so very alone, that (as he put it) “God is the only witness to your existence”.

Have you ever felt yourself so alone that God is the only witness to your existence? The psalmist had. “For God alone my soul waits in silence.”   He doesn’t say it once in Psalm 62; he says it (or something like it) five times in the first eight verses!   He couldn’t imagine himself more alone.

Why do we feel alone?   Chiefly, I think, because we are not understood.   However firmly we may know who we are, none of us can articulate it adequately. However resilient our self-identity, we cannot communicate this truth to others.  The result is that people are left having to “read” us and then guess who we are.

To be sure, other people can read something about us.  They can read virtually everything that is only skin-deep in us, everything that is on the surface. They can also read much that is below the surface, those quirks and character-traits about us that we think no one else sees but that in fact we are displaying all the time.  Yet even as we smile at how much more about us people can read than we used to think, we still feel they can’t read us at all in our innermost, deepest core. Our innermost core they don’t penetrate to, don’t see, don’t know.  And therefore there is a part of us, the most significant part, the unique part, that they don’t meet and therefore cannot affirm.

Not only do we feel alone inasmuch as our profoundest “self” isn’t recognized, we feel alone in addition inasmuch as we know there is something about us that arouses antipathy in others.  I don’t mean that there is a nastiness in us or similar character-flaw that arouses antipathy in others.  I mean that whatever there is about us that stands out, however much we may try not to stand out; this attracts hostility.  The psalmist cries to himself yet has his detractors in mind, “How long will you set upon a man to shatter him…?   [You] plan to thrust him down from his eminence.”

Any person possessed of unusual ability, however slightly unusual; any person possessed of even a smidgen of excellence by that fact becomes eminent. The peculiar combination of excellence and eminence irks, really irks, those who are less excellent and less eminent.  The less eminent turn mean.

You don’t have to be possessed of excellence in terms of achievement. You merely have to be slightly prominent. You earn more money than most people? In no time you are hearing that you are stuck-up or self-important.  You are better educated than most?   In no time you are hearing of character-flaws you never knew yourself to have. Your job or your income or your ancestry or anything at all renders you socially more prominent than most? In no time you are hearing that you may be invited to all the major social functions, but you still speak with an accent; and besides, your daughter had to get married, didn’t she?   When such a word reaches you — as it always does — you feel terribly alone once more.

What it was that made the psalmist eminent I do not know.  Perhaps it was simply that he appeared to be the spiritual giant that he was in fact, and appeared such amidst the spiritual pygmies all around him. Or perhaps it was that he could write poetry the world will never be without, while they didn’t have a line of poetry in them.  In any case the psalmist knew that to be eminent in any respect for any reason arouses envy in others.  The envious turn nasty instantly.  The psalmist knows the icy isolation that envy visits on those who are even slightly distinguished.         He felt himself to be a leaning wall, a tottering fence, whom the less-distinguished envious would simply love to push over.   He cries out in his aloneness, “They take pleasure in falsehood. They bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse.”   Then he cries to himself, for the umpteenth time, “For God alone my soul waits in silence.”

 

II: — Where do we turn when we are engulfed by our aloneness?   We naturally look to other men and women.  But which others? The others to whom we look are either “those of low estate”, in the words of the psalmist, or “those of high estate.”

The most pointed attempt at finding recognition and affirmation and alleviation of aloneness through “those of low estate” has to have been the role of the proletariat in the communist revolution.  Once capitalism had been abolished, the Marxists said, extraordinary virtue would appear in the “lumpen proletariat”, the huge mass of those of low estate.  The surge of virtue newly appearing in the these “lower classes” (so-called) would overcome every last distress in the human situation, including the aloneness that is more-or-less everyone’s predicament as well as the aloneness that nasty capitalists force on working class people.

What happened? The “triumph” of the proletariat gave rise to a savagery, misery, bleakness the 20th century had not yet seen.  Who are more alone, more isolated, more lonely than those in Marxist lands who cannot trust their neighbours at all?  When I have been driven to say with the psalmist, “For God alone my soul waits in silence”, I have never thought that what I needed most profoundly was part or all of the Saturday night crowd at Maple Leaf Gardens .

Then what about those of high estate?  The psalmist says they are a delusion.  He means that it is unrealistic to expect the rich and the socially prominent to overcome our aloneness.  Hobnobbing with those of high estate may make us feel less isolated for a minute. (Isn’t it pleasant to be able to say we had lunch with the mayor and supper with the president of General Motors?)   But it’s only for a moment. When sober reflection comes upon us again we know that having spent an afternoon with Jean Chretien or Wayne Gretzky or Margaret Atwood — however “heady” at the time — doesn’t profoundly remedy the aloneness we find so piercing. Name-dropping is surely one of the more pathetic attempts at gaining recognition, overcoming aloneness, through hanging around with the famous, the illustrious, the prestigious, the stars of athletics or academia or politics or entertainment. We don’t have access to the most glittering stars?   But at least we were at a New Year’s Eve party with the director of the board of education and he said to us….

The psalmist says there is another way we may try to overcome our aloneness: money. “If only I had my cousin’s income, my cousin would have to stop treating me like a non-event.” (Would she?) “If I only my net worth were large I should then be recognized by those whose net worth is comparable.” (Don’t bet on it. And besides, what would this accomplish, since those who have greater net worth are every bit as lonely themselves?)   The psalmist tells us we shouldn’t even bother with this. “If riches increase, set not your heart on them.”   We shouldn’t waste a minute thinking that money — whether gained legally or illegally — will do it for us.

Then how is our bone-chilling, heart-icing aloneness overcome?   Those of low estate can’t do it for us; neither can those of high estate; neither can an increase in riches, since something as impersonal as money will never remedy an ache that is profoundly personal.  Then what can?

 

IV: — More profoundly, who can? The psalmist tells us himself.

Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that

power belongs to God; and that to thee, O Lord,

belongs steadfast love.

“Once God has spoken; twice have I heard….”    It’s a semitism, a Hebrew way of speaking: “Once…twice.” The psalmist means, “Every time I hear God speaking, it echoes in my heart as well. I hear God speak, and I also hear the echo. God’s utterance is so telling, so penetrating, that I seem to hear it twice as often as he utters it — and he never stops uttering it!   Since God speaks his truth all the time, his truth is constantly dinned into me.” To hear God speak, and then to hear the echo as well, is to be inundated.  The psalmist began his sober psalm by crying, “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.”   Now he knows that he is saved by saturation, for he is saturated with God’s steadfast love for him.

Steadfast love. The two English words regularly translate one Hebrew word, HESED.  HESED is the word the Hebrew bible uses constantly in connection with God’s covenant. God’s covenant is his promise, his pledge that he who is mercy will ever show mercy. Our sin can certainly activate his mercy, but our sin can never terminate his mercy.  He will never forsake us because disgusted at us; he will never fail us because handcuffed before us.  God’s covenant is his pledge, his promise, that our fitful obedience to him will never diminish his faithfulness to us.  To say that steadfast love is the substance of God’s covenant is to say that our disgrace will not curdle his grace.  Angry as he may become at us, and anguished as well, he will not abandon us.

We must note how the psalmist reminds us that steadfast love and power alike belong to God. Power devoid of love would be destructive tyranny; steadfast love devoid of power would be weak and ineffective.  But God’s power is always and only the power of steadfast love, while his steadfast love is always and everywhere effective.

One year ago, a few days after Christmas, I went through a very difficult period of three or four weeks.  My difficulty, I think, had to do with the accumulation of several things: delayed reaction to the stresses that had fallen on me the previous spring, the fatigue that every minister knows around Christmas, exhaustion from teaching my semester-long course in historical theology, publisher’s deadlines for the book, So Great A Cloud of Witnesses, as well as the worst ‘flu I had had in a long time overtaking me on New Year’s Eve. In addition there were one or two other matters whose details you will have to leave with me.  I became depressed and anxious in a way that mystified me in that my depression and anxiety seemed vastly greater than any of the factors that supposedly gave rise to them, even if all these factors came together at once. I was spiralling down, knew I was spiralling down, and couldn’t do anything to halt the plunge.  Maureen loved me as ardently as she had since I was 19.  But there was nothing she could do.  Helpless and perplexed in equal measure, she couldn’t do anything except wait. I was still going down. Because I had upset her now, I was guilt-ridden as well as depressed and anxious. Just when I felt the pit of despair opening up before me and felt myself unable to avoid falling into it; just when I felt so bad I couldn’t imagine feeling worse; just then, one Thursday evening at 7:30 while I was standing in the dining room, staring at the floor, I was engulfed in a tidal wave of God’s love. It wasn’t that I “realized” that God loved me; it wasn’t even that I “realized” this afresh.  “Realized” is much too cerebral, much too ideational, much too abstract. I didn’t realize anything. I was flooded. I knew felt myself immersed in a love so pure and substantial that it was almost ask if my distress had been swallowed up in a giant batch of pure white dough (except that the dough, so far from threatening me with suffocation, promised me life.) I was bathed in the love of him who is love as tangibly as I was bathed in a tub of warm water later that night.  Don’t reduce it to, “Oh, Victor finally had his thinking clarified about the nature of God.”         Victor’s thinking about God’s nature had been clear for decades.  It was simply the very thing that the psalmist speaks of in Psalm 62: power and steadfast love alike belong to God.  For this reason God’s steadfast love was, for me at that moment, nothing less than a power-surge. As I stood in the dining room of my home, startled at “the presence”, a presence that was power and love in equal measure, the despair began to evaporate and the pit close up and the guilt, depression and anxiety recede. I didn’t recover instantly, but I knew that I was going to recover; I knew that recovery was underway. It took several weeks for me to come back.  One thing brought me back: an oceanic love, as steadfast as it was effective.

I trust you haven’t regarded my story as spiritual exhibitionism.  I share it with you for two reasons.  One, perhaps my story will help a fellow-sufferer.  Two, I agree with the psalmist when he tells us that to be visited with God’s visitation is to be charged with bearing witness.  The psalmist addresses the congregation and cries, “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart [all of you] before him; God is a refuge for us.”   When he began his psalm the psalmist felt isolated: “For God alone my soul waits in silence.”   Now he is eager to speak to fellow-worshippers at church!   “Trust in him, O people.”    And he supplies the word of personal testimony; “God is a refuge for us.” He can tell the congregation, “God is a refuge for us, you and me both”, inasmuch as he has first found God to be a refuge for him.

 

V: — I want to conclude with a word about what I call the miracle of providence. As we are so alone that our soul waits for God in silence; as we not only wait for him but also wait upon him; as we do this he rewards our waiting upon him by bringing to us another human being who has also been waiting for God in silence. The result is that neither we nor that other silent waiter-upon-God ever waits alone in silence in quite the same way again.  Someone has been brought into our orbit; we have been brought into his or her orbit; not any person at all, not a chatty well-wisher, but a fellow-sufferer who has also been a fellow-waiter-upon-God-in-silence; this person is brought to us, then another, and perhaps yet another.  There is forged a fellowship of those who have found steadfast love to be powerful, found power to be the strength of steadfast love — and who have found each other through the miracle of providence.         They will never be alone in quite the same way again.

 

Just because our Lord Jesus Christ was God-forsaken in Gethsemane for our sake, no human being is ever God-forsaken now.  For this reason we can lend our voice to the psalmist’s, “Trust in him at all times, O people, pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.”

God is a refuge, even as he introduces us to others who, by his providence, embody that selfsame refuge for us.

 

                                                                                               Victor A. Shepherd                                                                                                               

January 1995