“My heart mused and my spirit inquired:
‘Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?’”
I knew the couples up front. Three of the four of new moms and dads had been in my classes at one time or another during their years in college. Grandparents and uncles and aunts—some of them from far, far away—held down honored places on adjacent chairs.
Both couples were holding was their first babies, and those two towheads were also both first grandchildren from both sides of both families. Pride may well be the first of the deadly sins, but our church sanctuary last Sunday morning was overflowing with it, and there wasn’t a dime’s worth of sin and no guilt.
If either of the fathers had shown as much concentration in his schoolwork as he did when the preacher drenched their babies’ foreheads, they would have had far less trouble in my classes. Their focused attention on the baby and the baptism was a blessing—I swear, simply the way they were attuned to what was going on was revelation.
I don’t know why, but when the baptisms were over and the couples both were standing in front, husbands holding the babies, we sang “When Peace Like a River,” an odd hymn to sing right then, given its history. It must have been by request because I doubt our preacher would have chosen it. My guess is that it was someone’s favorite.
I can’t sing that song without getting choked up. One of the reasons is the story of Horace Spafford, who wrote the hymn after losing his four daughters when the ship they were in went down in the Atlantic. That’s another story.
The morning of the baptism was not the time to tell the story of the hymn.
Anyway, the sacrament was gloriously accomplished, the music resplendent. That Sunday morning, in our church there was good reason to be smilingly overwhelmed.
But just beside me sat a couple who, a year ago, lost a grandson who, one Sunday, walked away from his father for just a second, fell into a swollen creek, and was never seen again.
Those first-time parents up front prompted the grandparents beside me to dig out Kleenex, and there I sat, somewhere, like all of us, somewhere between heaven and hell.
Most good writers say rhetorical questions are, well, sophomoric, a cheap way to incite interest. Asaph lines them up like dominoes here in the mid-section of Psalm 77, one after another—six in all, six that when read together feel less like simple rhetoric than the consecutive blows of a cudgel. There he is, beating away on God’s own chest. “Are you there or not?” he’s saying—brash and impudent and pushy, even sophomoric, I guess, just as all of us are.
In Asaph’s barrage of questions, I hear what I felt in the muffled breaths of those bereft grandparents last week in church, in the tears they tried to wipe away in the tumult of joy all around.
What I know as I come ever closer to seventy years of life—as well as from a single worship service just last Sunday--is that Asaph impassioned questions are not his alone.
God never promises a rose garden, only a presence; and when that presence seems an absence, even Mother Teresa turned into a sophomore. We all do, when there’s nothing but questions.