Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 44:20-26) transports me to the on-call world of rescue squad responders and firefighters and medical professionals, those faithful folk who carry all manner of beeping and buzzing portable devices and sleep with one ear open for the alarming calls that will interrupt their dream world with an emergency of some sort. I don’t remember Roy DeSoto and Johnny Gage ever finishing one of their chili dinners before the firehouse dog’s ears would perk up, followed by the severe alarm tones and a loudspeaker announcement for Squad 51 to get their gear on and head to the site of a fire or wreck, where they’d have to coordinate their intervention with the staff of Rampart Hospital. Whatever the emergency, the situation usually called for nurse Dixie McCall to advise DeSoto or Gage to administer 1000 cc’s or so of an IV with Lactated Ringer’s. It’s a classic show, accompanied by a classic horn-section-driven theme tune, which I probably will have ringing in my ears for the rest of the day now.
The theme song would go well with today’s Psalm, which comes from a land where people of faith are in major crisis mode and issue a wake-up call to God in the form of severe complaints and alarming questions. I am glad this Psalm made it into the scriptures, because it tells me that God’s Holy Word can include the same kind of unholy questioning and venting that most human beings must feel like expressing from time to time. It gives us permission to bring these kinds of feelings into our prayer life. The problem the Psalmist is struggling with is the age-old theological problem of God’s selective intervention. The song starts out as an homage praising God for all the wonders done in times past. The songwriter had heard all the stories—Elijah calling down fire from heaven to defeat the Baal prophets, Gideon defeating the large Philistine army with only a handful of warriors, and on and on. But if God intervened then, why not now? the Psalmist complains. I don’t believe the complainer would have been satisfied with simple, pat answers—God knows best; there must be a reason. Let God finish his bowl of chili for a change. No, the Psalmist looked around and saw people of deep faith being murdered execution style, like sheep being slaughtered, and what he saw must have given him a nagging feeling that no loving Parent would stand by and watch such senseless suffering.
The Psalmist’s complaint boils down to the random nature of God’s intervention in human history. God can make an axe head float on water, but lets a child drown. God can defeat a terrorist army with trumpets and pottery, and let another terrorist slaughter the innocent. The miracle of this Psalm is that the Psalmist never loses faith, in spite of all the evidence. The song ends with a defiant wake-up call, a plea for help from the One whose love is described as unfailing. This musical juxtaposition of horrific violence and praise for the unfailing love of God is what makes the Psalm so engaging. Such a clash of images reminds me of the closing scene of an episode of The Sopranos (just to let you know that I have watched a couple of tv shows since the 70s). The mobster Tony Soprano’s daughter, Meadow, is singing in her high school choral concert. In an throwback to a scene from The Godfather, we see Meadow and her classmates sweetly singing the old Welsh lullaby, All Through the Night, while Tony’s henchmen are executing a young man in his bathtub. The cacophony of violence presented in this literal bloodbath is interposed with the lovely harmony of teenage voices singing, sleep my child, and peace attend thee, all through the night. Guardian angels God will send thee, all through the night. Such is the world we live in. Right now young children are suffering senselessly. Right now someone is begging for intervention, desperately trying to rouse God out of a seeming sleep. And yet we continue to have defiant faith in God’s unfailing love, and can hear God’s voice sweetly singing, soft the drowsy hours are creeping, hill and vale in slumber sleeping, I my loved ones’ watch am keeping, all through the night. Maybe that lullaby will compete with the Emergency theme for my ear-worm today. Whatever is ringing in your ears, I hope you will sleep well tonight, but don’t hesitate to sound an alarm in your bedtime prayers.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “Waking and Sleeping.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.