Oblivion: Reflections on the Psalms

A little over a year ago, our church set out to read all 150 Psalms together over a period of 150 days.  As we studied these ancient songs and poems of thanksgiving, lament, imprecation, and pilgrimage, I was amazed to watch what overflowed from our hearts as a community.  Search #150DaysofPsalms on social media, and you’ll see photos of sunsets, fresh mountain streams, disaster zones, snowfalls, storms, newborn babies, and springtime blossoms, all viewed through the lens of Psalmists whose hearts were fixated on the Creator.  Many of us wrote songs about individual Psalms that were particularly meaningful to us.

It soon became clear that it would be a worthy endeavor to capture and record some of these songs in an album that our community could enjoy for years to come.  This album, which was a labor of love from many talented and tireless individuals, is being released this weekend.  We titled it "Heirloom" because we believe that the Psalms are an ancient text, a precious treasure handed down from generation to generation.  You can find it here. 

Our journey through the Psalms came, for me, during a season of growth and heartache, and probably the most challenging year of my life.  During this time, I served twice as a chaplain at a field hospital just outside Mosul, Iraq where I witnessed firsthand the toll warfare takes on the human heart and body.  In July, I lost a baby in a late first trimester miscarriage.  I made a difficult trip to Eastern Congo, where hunger is prevalent, and some researchers believe as many as 48 women are raped every hour.

It was sometime in the midst of that difficult season our church read through Psalm 88.  It is a Psalm of lament in which the writer is reflecting on the pain and turmoil he has experienced, that he is living in precariously close proximity to death.  In a world that had yet to develop a robust theology of resurrection and the afterlife, the Psalmist is grappling with the reality of what it means to linger at the brink of ruination.

I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death...  I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave…From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair…darkness is my closet friend.”

The fear, naturally, is that if we cease to exist in the way we’ve always known, our legacy, our meaning, and our connection to our Maker will be compromised irreparably.  If the chief end of man is to praise God, can this purpose be fulfilled after the breath has gone from our lungs?

Do You show your wonders to the dead?  Do their spirits rise up and praise You?  Is Your love declared in the grave, Your faithfulness in Destruction?  Are Your wonders known in the place of darkness, or Your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?”

Oblivion.  What do we really know of existence beyond this life?  We cling to the promises of God, to the resurrection of Jesus, the hope of life eternal.  But our expectations are conceptual and we have yet to know experientially what is to come.  And the grief of what feels like the futility of life cut short, sometimes excruciatingly short, clouds our vision.

I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.”

To me, the ultimate question of life is this:  Can God be trusted to caretake the souls of mankind, even into the unknowns of eternity.

Is He loving?

Is He just?

My pregnancy was complicated from day one.  Things never looked quite like they should, and I nervously awaited each doctor’s visit, bracing for what my motherly intuition told me was the inevitable bad news to come.  One night, before one of these appointments, I sat in our upstairs living room, peering out the window, wondering if this life-changing miracle growing in my body would come to fruition.  I wrote the song Oblivion, featured on our church’s Psalms album, and I wrote a letter to our child.  I said this, among many other things: 

“I want to remember this moment, this period of days when we didn’t know if you were real…if you were just a fleeting hope, a thought, or a prayer.  We didn’t know what you were.  We didn’t know who you were.  Tomorrow I will go back and find out for sure.  I want to remember what it feels like to long so much for you, to abide in that thin space between nothingness and existence, oblivion and life.”

That evening reminded me of those dark nights in the combat hospital, where we drifted like a dream through that thin space between life and death, watching lives, some of them young lives, end unceremoniously, with painfully little pomp and circumstance.    We brought our prayers, our tears, our songs of lament.  But it never felt like enough. 

It’s a long and sacred wait – to sit with people as they slowly breathe their last breaths.  I remember waiting with a tiny prematurely born baby as he passed away, whose location of birth in a war zone has sealed his fragile fate.  The world would hardly turn its head to acknowledge the existence of this little one.  But I had borne witness to his little life, which felt all together like an honor and a grievous responsibility.

The Hebrew word for “oblivion” also means “forgetfulness.”  So what about the deceased?  Are they forgotten by God?  Do they matter to God?

Would the life of my child matter at all to anyone?  Would she be forgotten?  Was she even real?

This is one of life’s most confounding truths:  We live in a world where my husband and I can beg God for years for a child, and spend all kinds of time, energy, and resources correcting things in my body so that we can bring a life into this world, and finally love and adore a person the size of a poppy seed growing in my belly, and do everything we possibly can to nurture that little life.  And simultaneously other humans spend equal or more amounts of time, energy, and resources designing improvised explosive devises that fit into toys and drones that can drop bombs on soccer games. 

Human hatred and Divine love live alongside one another as neighbors.  What a world.  What an absurdity.

In spite of the sadness of the season that followed, and in spite of the shock of having been awakened to a new world of violence and hatred, I have come to learn that He does speak in the oblivion.  He is a God who remembers, who never forgets. 

He can't forget because He Himself descended to the place of oblivion.

He is a God who cherishes His children, and bestows upon them, all of them, even the tiniest, His image, which is the greatest give of all.  We all bear His image, both the crafter of the IED and the recipients of its wounds.  We can carry that image to a place of hiding and darkness.  Or we can carry it to a place of the light of His presence.

He speaks to all of us, in our moments of oblivion.  He spoke to me in the oblivion, and I believe He spoke to our child.

To my child, I wrote: “To exist is a miracle.  Life is all at once so very fragile, and yet staunchly persistent.  And I resolved to know and to hold on to the notion that we all exist to bear the image, to hold the breath of God.  And that is a noble charge, and honorable task, whether our life plays out in 100 years.  Or we exist primarily as a sparkle in a mother’s eye, a hope in a father’s heart.  If you do not make it, I want you to know I believe you bore His image and that is a thing of awe and wonder.”

Darkness is no stranger to me

I don’t know what others have seen

But I will bear witness, bear the flame

There’s beauty in the telling in the refrain

 

Do You speak in the oblivion?

Are Your deeds known by the dead

And I’ve seen nations come undone

As I weep for the tears that You bled

 

And all will bear His image, hold His breath

A task that Adam’s children must accept

And brevity of life cannot quell

Some carry it to kingdom, some carry it to hell

 

And oh, we hover in between conception and the grave

But I believe He lights the darkness

Of all the miracles I’ve seen, all the prayers I’ve raised

Existence is the greatest gift of all

 

And oh, we hover in between conception and the grave

But I believe He lights the darkness

Of all the miracles I’ve seen, all the prayers I’ve raised

To know Him is the greatest gift of all

 

Do You speak in the oblivion?

Are Your deeds known by the dead

And I’ve seen nations come undone

As I weep for the tears that You bled

 

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Amanda Opelt1 Comment