In September of 2004, I was twenty weeks pregnant and woke up bleeding. We called the doctor and rushed in to the office. She said, “I’m so sorry…” and explained to us that it was unlikely this pregnancy could be saved. Then she sent us directly to the hospital, where I lay for the next six weeks in a bed with my feet elevated so that gravity might help keep the baby where she belonged. We spent that six weeks praying fervently, while hedging our bets…yearning for a miracle, but afraid to hope too much. Making bargains with God: If you let this child survive, Lord, I will never doubt you again.
The words of Psalm 121 filled my mind from that very first devastating moment in the doctor’s office and throughout those forty days and nights: “Hine lo y’num v’lo yshan shomer Israel.” “Behold, the One who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” I clung to that. My Lord, my keeper, the One who watches over me, neither slumbers nor sleeps. And so I am not alone. Reluctantly I admitted to myself that God was holding us safe, even then and there, and that no matter what happened, God would not let us go. My prayer became: “OK, I will trust you God…but please don’t screw this one up!”
Nearly thirteen years later, I watch our beautiful daughter excelling in school, learning to make beautiful music in the band and the orchestra, and crushing it in Karate tournaments. And I marvel at her. Who would ever know now how tiny she was, born at twenty-six weeks, with all those machines and IV lines keeping her alive? I remember my desperation and fear, and how terrifying it was to have no assurance but my shaky hold on God’s promise. Sometimes, as I watch her transforming into a young woman and worry about all that lies ahead for her, I still find it hard to trust that God is holding us. I am still so tempted to try to bargain with God: If you allow her to get through adolescence unscathed, Lord, I will work harder for you. If you keep her safe from tragic accidents or devastating diseases, I will tell everyone what a great God you are…
I read Psalm 66, and I see myself. “Lord, you tested us and tried us, you allowed us to carry heavy burdens and to go through fiery trials and troubles that nearly drowned us…yet you have brought us out to a spacious place” (vs. 12). I often remind my congregation that pain and sorrow and trouble are part of life for everyone, and that we cannot avoid them by “living right” or by making bargains with God. And when we do experience them, it is not because we are somehow being punished for bad behavior, nor because our faith isn’t strong enough, nor because we have doubts, nor because we don’t pray hard enough, often enough.
Life is hard. Loss is part of it. Pain is part of it. But: the one who watches over us neither slumbers nor sleeps, and we are not alone. The psalmist certainly knew that sometimes it’s important to look back at where we’ve been and what we’ve been through, so that we can see how God has “brought us out into a spacious place.”
When we were slaves in Egypt, you delivered us. When we were trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, you parted the waters. When we were starving and thirsty, you gave manna and water from solid rock. When we faced fierce enemies, you fought the battles and gave us victory. When we were sent into exile, you brought us home. Behold, the one who watches over us never slumbers nor sleeps! Behold, we are not alone!
We carry this hope forward, knowing that even if the sun is shining today, storms will surely come. And when once again we are tested and tried, when we must walk through fire, when we can barely keep our heads above water, our God will not let our foot slip. Surely, once again, God will bring us out into a spacious place.
“Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me!” (vs. 16). Look back and see what God has done: When we have been ill or injured, God has healed us. When we have been lost, God has guided us. When we have been grieving, God has comforted us. When we have been afraid, God has strengthened us. When we have been in need, God has provided. When we have been in danger, God has protected. When we have cried out to God, God has listened. “Blessed be God,” who has not rejected our prayers, or removed his steadfast love from us” (vs. 20).