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Krieg Barrie

The backward path forward

In moments of terror and great sorrow, remember what the Lord has done

Psalm 77 is about memory. “When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints.” From the first words, we know this is going to be one of those laments—a downer. The writer is trying to reach God through overwhelming events. Time has stopped, crushing all options under the weight of the present disaster. “You hold my eyelids open” on a stubborn view that never changes or softens.

As I write, a crucial election lies ahead, national solvency hangs by a thread, and the character of our country is precariously balanced. That’s the big news. The small news is an acquaintance with grief. Personal friends and relatives have suffered profound loss, and while I struggle for words to comfort them, my own vulnerability comes to mind. Life is perilous by nature—the next minute could plunge any of us into a pit of despair. When we’re down there, nothing seems more real than darkness, or more illusory than light.

Sometimes we have to go back to go forward, as anyone knows who’s been stuck in a snow bank. A man loses his wife; his closest companion for 45 years, suddenly gone, and he can’t yet imagine the future. So he reaches for memory: their first date, their first kiss; what she wore, how she laughed. A wise comforter will let him talk, back up, remember.

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Sooner or later it will be my turn to grieve. When that happens, “Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart.” Let me remember when grass was green and the air was sweet, when the Lord blew into my life and turned it golden, when everything made sense. Back when I belonged. Let me ask my heart a series of questions, gently probing. Look, heart: You knew His love. Does this present darkness mean love has ceased? You’ve experienced the fulfillment of His promises—has He suddenly reneged? “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” But what kind of question is that? God is gracious. Anything He is, He will continue to be, for He can’t be false to His character.

The Psalmist follows his own memory lane to the point where it joins a thoroughfare. We call this history—not a museum of dead artifacts but a family album of great-grandmothers in baby caps and stern-faced pioneers. Salvation history belongs to us as much as to the ancient Israelites; we’re all fugitive slaves escaping our Egyptian overlords. Straight ahead the Red Sea churns. The endless ebb and flow of water leaves no track, points no sign; we’re frozen in consternation. But as time passes we feel the wind picking up, the waves recoiling. The water surges and the weight of a timeless, sleepless burden surrenders before the might of God. The sea sketches a path. The moment unlocks its grip and we begin to see a future.

If you’re in the pit, close your eyes. Seek Him in your memory. Follow Him back through the years. He created time so we could find ourselves and follow its threads to Him. It’s the only way—even though eternity is planted in our hearts, we ourselves are planted here in the thick of things, where trouble and trial grow our souls. In every believer’s memory there is a moment of terror (real or anticipated), when the worst thing we could imagine comes true: the child dies, the man leaves, the project fails, the nation staggers—and down we go into the pit where nothing exists but the dreadful present and the ceaseless, muttering waves. Pharaoh’s army, all bristling with spears, is upon us. “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord” (Exodus 14:13).

If the way forward is unfathomable, then go back. Locate Him in your memory, and stand firm. “Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” The tracks of the Lord are clearest when we look behind us. In memory, He clears a path. 

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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