Out of the depths, hope!

By Curtis K. Shelburne: Religion columnist

I love the Psalms. They are so filled with the reality of life that we can all find ourselves in them as the reality of our own lives crowds in. Consider, for example, Psalm 130, a psalm for real people, flesh and blood humans, who haven’t got life all figured out, who make mistakes pretty regularly, whose lives have plenty of room left for growth.

Someone once made fun of the Puritans by saying that they thought themselves so holy that they had to hold on to the huckleberry bushes to keep from inadvertently ascending.

The writer of this psalm knows that such is not his situation. He has been driven to his knees and to the Lord by his weakness. His cry for help and mercy so well expresses the cries of us all when we also fall far short that this psalm has often been used in the worship and liturgy of God’s people down through the centuries to express their need, their confession, their trust.

The psalmist (likely not David on this one) begins by acknowledging, “I’m in a mess, and only you, my God, can save me!” My Bible renders this, “O Lord, out of the depths I cry to you!” (NIV).

Eugene Peterson gets the point across well in his paraphrase (The Message): “Help, God—the bottom has fallen out of my life! … Listen to my cries for mercy.”

This cry for mercy comes “out of the depths.” The psalmist is sinking in his trouble. He’s drowning and headed for oblivion, and he knows it. If you’re drowning, you don’t politely whisper, “Say, would you help me please? Ever so sorry to be a bother, but I really believe I may be drowning.”

I’ll never forget the day my son Joshua and I went rafting down the Nile in Uganda. We had great guides, but a Class 5 rapid called “Silverback” just about did us both in.

We knew our chances of riding the raft all the way through were virtually nil; we just hoped to ride it as long as possible before being tossed out and sucked under. It is extremely difficult to get your breath in that kind of white water even when, after what seems like 30 minutes or so down below, you finally bob up. The muted underwater world and the green glow you hoped you saw overhead as you floated upward has finally turned back into the deafening sound of crashing waves, and you see bright light and white foam and froth, and you desperately need air, but all you seem to be able to suck in is foam and spray.

What Silverback did to me, life at times does to us all. And we find ourselves fresh out of wise words and self-help strategies and fine strategic planning. We discover that we’re in the same boat as all humans. We are not “a cut above,” and our words are cut down to three: “O God, help!”

He does. And the psalmist’s words also in this psalm become ours: “If you, God, kept records on wrongdoings, who would stand a chance? As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit, and that’s why you’re worshiped” (The Message).