Wednesday, 2 March 2016

A Shipwrecked Saint

The story of the USS Indianapolis is one of the untold stories of World War II.  On July 27th 1945 the ship left Guam and sailed for the Leyte Gulf through the Philippine Sea Frontier.  Despite VE Day being announced in Europe – the war in the Pacific raged on.  Little did the sailors on the USS Indianapolis know that the strange crate they had just delivered to the B-29 Superfortress base in Tinian was the components (including uranium 235) of the atomic bombs that would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki quaintly named ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Boy’.  With no destroyer escort, the huge USS Indianapolis had no sonar to detect enemy submarines.    

To compound matters, the United States command centre for the Pacific (CINCPAC) did not inform Captain McVay that the Japanese Tamon submarine group had been patrolling the very route the ship was to take.  They had sunk the USS Underhill just days earlier.  CINCPAC was desperate to hide the fact that they had deciphered the Japanese codes through their ULTRA program and randomly withheld information from US ships to bluff the Japanese.  The ship sailed in the ‘Yoke-Modified’ position – with doors and hatches open completely unaware of what was about to happen.

On the evening of July 29th, on a calm night, sailing due west at 17 knots, the Captain gave the order to ‘secure from zigzagging’ a technique to avoid torpedoes.   Little did the crew know that deep below the surface 105 crew in a Japanese submarine called I – 58 were stalking the unsuspecting USS Indy.  Just after midnight Captain Hashimoto of I-58 gave the order to fire 6 torpedoes.  The fist torpedo ripped the front of the boat off with the second one hitting midship exploding the ammunition magazine.  Deep below deck was a 21-year-old Christian called Edgar Harrell from Kentucky.  Year later he wrote an acoount of the disaster called 'Out of the Depths'.  Standing on the deck of the burning ship he writes;

Eternity was before me.  And in the midst of my fear and helplessness, I cried out to God in prayer. Anyone who has ever experienced a similar situation will understand what I am to say: There are times when you pray, and times when you pray!  This was one of those latter times.  No one offered to help me because no one else could help me. I was alone – or so it seemed.  But as I reached out in desperation to the Saviour of my soul, He suddenly made it clear to me that He was going to be the Saviour of my life. There was no audible voice.  Something far more comforting suddenly given to me. An unexplainable and ineffable peace enveloped me like a blanket on a frosty night…

For four days, perhaps as any as 600 sailors and marines bobbed about in shark infested waters watching helplessly as colleagues succumbed to dehydration, madness and exhaustion.  Scorched during the day and frozen during the night – the number of survivors dwindled hour by hour.

Men prayed like I never heard men pray. With inconsolable grief each man who was able to talk poured his heart out to God.  With swollen tongues we did our best taking turns to pleading with God for deliverance.  And before one could finish, another would interrupt with his supplications.

In Psalm 77, we see the Psalmist responding to tragedy, or a series of tragedies with a prayer.  He struggles with deep despair and anxiety as all of us will at some time in our life.
We may not be shipwrecked or lost in the ocean but all of us sooner or later will face storms.  We may face what those sailors faced; hopelessness, despair, isolation, trauma, betrayal.

The Bible doesn't shy away from these issues.  We see the subject of spiritual depression and despair in the Psalms (42, 88), in Job, in Jacob, Moses, Hannah, Jeremiah and in Elijah.  Proverbs says; ‘The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity; but a wounded spirit who can bear?’ ch 18 v 14 and ‘A man’s spirit can endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?’  ESV.  The illness of the mind is even worse than the body.  It is a reality that we see in the Bible and we will all face to a greater or lesser degree.  As one pastor says; 

The Psalms treat depression more realistically than many of today’s popular books on Christianity and Psychology.  David and other psalmists found themselves deeply depressed for many reasons.  They did not, however, apologize for what they were feeling, nor did they confess it a sin.  It was a legitimate part of their relationship with God.  They interacted with him through the context of their depression.  Steve Bloem

So what can we learn from this Psalm?  Let's notice firstly;

1.  A Shipwrecked Saint
The Psalmist is in distress of soul.  His distress is loud, late and long.

a) A loud cry
This is not some small complaint.  The Psalmist is affected mentally, emotionally physically and spiritually.  He cries aloud in verse 1.  His distress has erupted, it has overflowed,  He can’t bottle his emotions any longer.  What are some of the feelings of depression?  Sadness (self and others)
·         Worthlessness
·         Anxiety
·         Panic
·         Self-hatred

We see these mirrored in Psalm 77;
·         v 2,3,4 troubled, unable to be comforted, insecure, scared, inconsolable.
·         Overwhelmed, full of anguish v 3
·         Isolated, cut off from God v 7

b) A late cry
The Psalmists lament was in the night.  Edgar Harell says in his little book that ‘Without light you are unable to see anything including the horizon.  The blackness of the night wraps itself around you with an infinite darkness, causing a surreal disorientation and profound isolation.’  Depression eventually affects our physical behaviour. 

Crying, weeping, sobbing
·       Emotional instability or fragility
·       Groaning
·       Sleeplessness – ‘in the night’
·        Inability to speak
·        Inability to pray

Perhaps the Psalmist was weeping when everyone else was in bed.  Perhaps he found the long dark nights the worst.  It brought his feelings of despair into even sharper focus like the the writer of Ecclesiastes;  'For all his days are sorrows and his travail grief; ye his heart, taketh not rest in the night.' Ecc 2 v 23

c) A long cry

The Psalmists distress in not a passing feeling.  It was long, sustained and comprehensive.
We aren't told where the Psalmists depression comes from and we need to be careful in our diagnosis.  It can have physical, emotional and spiritual causes.  We must be very careful not to always think there is a spiritual cause to depression.

As Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones says;
Many Christian people, in fact, are in utter ignorance concerning this realm where the borderlines between the physical, psychological and spiritual meet. Frequently I have found that such [church] leaders had treated those whose trouble was obviously mainly physical or psychological, in a purely spiritual manner; and if you do so, you not only don’t help. You aggravate the problem.

Most of us can bear temporary trials, but when they are long and appear to never end, then we are tempted to despair.The Psalmists distress affected his relationships, it affected his sleep and it affected his faith.  The Psalmist thinks on God, but there is no comfort, no sweetness, no joy.  The thought of God makes him groan.  As Hendry says; ‘When he remembered God his thoughts fastened only on his justice, and wrath, and dreadful majesty, and thus God became a terror to him’.  It wasn’t that he couldn’t think of God but he could only see certain aspects of God.  He despairs of ever experiencing Gods love and favour again.

Does this describe you?  Are you passing through deep waters?  Is your lament loud, long and late?  Do you feel shipwrecked by the events of life?  Let’s look at how the Psalmist responds.

2.  A Silent and Searching Saint v 4-9

a)    The cries are silenced v 4
Either through exhaustion or through mood swings, the Psalmist goes from crying aloud to silence.  Calvin suggests he was so ‘choked with calamities’ he couldn’t even speak.  Some things in life are beyond words.  Grief is often so painful we can’t even articulate the pain.
Perhaps this was why Eli couldn’t hear Hannah – her lips were moving as she poured her heart out to God but no sound was coming out – I Sam 2 v 13.

b)    Looking back v 5,6
The Psalmist thinks on former times.  In his depression the Psalmist was focussed on himself, his troubles and his affliction.  Now he seeks to consider the past – ‘the years of ancient time.’ v 5 (Geneva).  He remembers happier times when he sang in thankfulness.
V 6 ESV ‘Then my spirit made a diligent search.’  As Calvin says God would have us search our hearts when adversity presses upon us, and it is perversely stupid to refuse to do so.  The Psalmist seems to be going from a state of passive distress to a state of active enquiry.

c)  Searching out 7-9
He asks these desperate questions in verses 7-9.  The Psalmist gropes in the darkness for answers.  He is like Christian and Hopeful in Doubting Castlein Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress;
"What a fool am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty? I have a key in my bosom called Promise that will (I am persuaded) open any lock in Doubting Castle."  When we are in despair we turn to the promises of God.  The Psalmist asks in v 7 (Geneva) ‘Will the Lord absent himself forever?’  or in the ESV ‘Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favourable?’  Paul answers that question in Romans; 'Hath God cast away his people? God forbid' – Romans 11 v 1.  The Psalmist says; ‘Surely the Lord will not fail his people, neither will he forsake his inheritance’ Psalm 94 v 14.  His aim was not to undermine his faith but to encourage it.  He asks these questions to seek out the God who he had enjoyed in the past.  As Calvin says In our trials, let us ask the same question, ‘Has God changed his nature so as to be no longer merciful?’ The prophets and fathers also prayed, in wrath remember mercy’ (Hab 3 v 2).  When we are distressed, we need to apply the word of God more than ever.

3.  A Saved Saint v 10-19

a)  A breakthrough v 10
Suddenly the Psalmist stops in verse 9, he pauses - Selah.
The psalmist is beginning to see light again. 
He diagnoses his condition – I see what is wrong with me!
 V 10 Geneva ‘And I said This is my death; yet I remembered the years of the right hand of the most High.
He appeals to ‘the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.’

b)  New Thinking v 11
There is a new confidence – ‘I will remember.’
The Psalmist starts his recovery by thinking differently.
What we can find though is that depression causes us to think in unhelpful ways.  We perceive events and experiences in a certain way which may reflect but also contribute to depression.
•           False extremes – Job 13 v 24, 33 v 10
‘Why do hide your face and count me as your enemy?’
‘Behold he finds occasions against me, he counts me as his enemy.’
•           False generalisations – Jacob Gen 42 v 36
‘Everything is against me.’
Joseph was gone, Simeon was in prison and they wanted to take Benjamin.
•           Turning positives into negatives – Jonah 4
‘It is better for me to die than to live’.
•           False should’s and ought’s – Martha Luke 10 v 40-42
            Martha was distracted with much serving.
Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me alone?
Victim or martyr mentality
‘Martha, Martha you are anxious and troubled about many things but one thing is needful.’
•           False responsibility – Moses Num 11 v 14-15
‘I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me.  If you will treat me like this, kill at once, if I find favour in your sight, that I many not see my wretchedness’.
‘While we often cannot change the providences we are passing through, we can change the way we think about them so we have a more accurate and positive view of our lives, thereby lifting our spirits’. David Murray

c) Past Deliverances
The psalmist persevered through his distress and his questions, until he eventually begins to focus on God once again.  As John Calvin says;  ‘With new found courage, the psalmist firmly grips the memory of God’s past favours’.

Two things comfort the psalmist;
i)  That God’s way is in the sanctuary v 13

As the Geneva/AV says ‘Thy way is in the sanctuary.’  The psalmist can’t understand the trials he is passing through, and he can’t understand the depths of his despair but he is comforted that God’s ways are in the sanctuary – they are beyond our comprehension.  God’s power and holiness are what sets him apart as God.  His holiness is perfect and his power is infinite.  God is not afflicting us out of some perverse pleasure.  He is not the divine watchmaker who stands back and watches his people suffering while he is helpless.  He is holy and pure in his character, therefore all his dealings with his people must be for their good and his glory.  God’s way is not among men – his way is in the sanctuary of heaven.

As Asaph begins to think on God he breaks forth in adoration v 13.  As he focuses on God’s attributes he is comforted.  He starts to see God for who he is – not the parts he saw in his depression.

b) That God’s way is in the sea.
God’s ways are compared to the deep sea which cannot be fathomed. 
He is a god like no other God v 13.  He is God of almighty power.  God’s deeds stand as records of his power in history.  The Exodus in v 15 when God rescued and redeemed his people – the children of Jacob (the covenant) and Joseph (preservation).  The Psalmist also sees God's power in the parting of the Red Sea v 16 and the destruction of Israel’s enemy’s v17.

The power of the sea has led many to feel helpless and hopeless but the Psalmist embraces the God who has power over the elements.  The same God who calmed the storm can calm the storm in the life of the Psalmist.  As Dr Guthrie once wrote; 'We seem sometimes to forget, when we cower down before the tempest, and look before us with a fearful eye on the mighty billows that are rolling on. We seem to forget what the sailor boy said ‘my fathers at the helm’.

4.  A Secure Saint

The psalm ends rather abruptly with this reference to Moses and Aaron leading God’s flock.
Moses had of course been a shepherd for his father in law Jethro and was the shepherd or leader of the Children of Israel.  Aaron of course was their High Priest.

The people needed direction and they needed acceptance with God.  This was the job of the High Priest – to offer up sacrifices in the tabernacle for the sins of God’s people.  By the end of the Psalm it would appear that the Psalmist knew something of the direction and feeding of the good Shepherd.  He felt secure.  He may have been in the valley of the shadow of death but he was now grazing beside the green pastures.  Is this Psalm surely not pointing forward to the Great Shepherd who offered himself up as a once for all sacrifice for our sins?  The one who was ‘despised and rejected by men: a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,’ Isaiah 53 v 3.  Jesus was no stranger to sorrow and anguish.  He never doubted God was in control but he still felt real sorrow, real sadness and real grief. 

How much more than Asaph can we go to our High Priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses – who is touched with a feeling of our infirmities.  Heb 4 v 15

We have seen a shipwrecked saint, a silent and searching saint, a saint saved and a secure saint.  As soon as Asaph started meditating on God; his attributes and his deeds, his fears vanished.  It might not be quick for all of us.  But this Psalm helps us to see and understand that when the storm comes, we have nothing to fear.  Whether we are shipwrecked, abandoned or distressed, God is in control.  And God is able to save in the most remarkable ways.

On the fourth day of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis – when all hope was gone a Lockhead Ventura PV-1 bomber was flying overhead at 3000 feet.  Due to a problem with a weighted antenna sock falling off, Ly Chuck Gwinn was flying overhead and noticed an oil slick.  Dropping to 300 feet he suddenly broke radio silence ‘ducks on the pond’.

The Pacific Ocean is 63,780,000 square miles.  The chances of spotting these men were a billion to one – God saved in answer to prayer.  Yes depression and anxiety will be the reality for every Christian – but God hears, God answers and God delivers.  Psalm 77 gives us great hope that when we least expect it God can deliver in the most remarkable way.