By Alexis Barnhart

Sleepless—A Reflection on Pandemics & Psalm 22

I remember 3:00 a.m. My body worn, head pounding, brain a foggy mess as I lie eyes wide-open. It began when campuses went digital. I was taking near-intolerable amounts of Prednisone to treat a rise in my autoimmune disease. Night after night, the medicine left me staring into black, imploring myself to dream.

Though I’m now sleeping 10 hours a night, my days still wash together into an exhausted, delirious state.

After a decade of chronic illness, I’ve learned how my body and heart speak the same language. The pain in my head tells of the twist in my heart. I’m still sleepless—mind, body, and soul. I wonder if your new realities feel sleepless, too?

“Why Have You Forsaken Me?”

I keep company with the tired, frightened, and teary-eyed. I fellowship with those who suffered before us. Those, like King David, who bled their hearts onto pages. In this season, my faith folds itself into his psalms. Like Psalm 22, a song of lament from the Old Testament titled “Why Have you Forsaken Me?” A song of crying—not necessarily our first choice of uplifting music, and yet there’s something in tears I wish to hold.

“O my God,” David declares, “I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (Ps 22:2). We stare at our screens, pound at our keyboards writing papers and finishing projects. We look through tiny Zoom windows into the homes of our peers. We stare out windows at rain, wind, sun, and gloom, but we remain caged. Our losses grow by the hour, but our screens call us to plug away despite our weary bones. Restless. Sleepless.

King David gets vivid: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint” (Ps 22:14a). I’m picturing him with bones sticking out of his skin, water gushing from his mouth. Think I’m being dramatic? It gets better: “My heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue sticks to my jaws” (Ps 22:14b).

Amid our suffering, uncertainty, and fear, I wonder if this is exactly the heart response that’s necessary. When seniors can’t say their goodbyes, internationals aren’t allowed home, parents are stripped of work, protests are happening in so many cities, and the “breaking stories” on the news hardly create change, do we feel like David, pleading with heaven and hearing no reply? I wonder if we, too, could benefit from crying out: “I’m not sleeping. A virus is spreading and shutting down our norms and ways of being. So many people in our nation are grieving and in deep pain. We are lonely, afraid, uncertain, angry, stir-crazy, sleep-deprived, bored, out-of-breath, my bones, I see them, popping out—POPPING—out!”

“I Will Praise You”

Later David progresses from his dramatic—but needed—outbreak of emotion and pain. He turns to a new reality and praises the very God he was questioning. He verbalizes his hope that something new, something good, something powerful can come from his ashes: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (Ps 22:22).

There’s something in the saying, the act of naming, that matters. When a freshmen small group I led went virtual, students would share Scripture, songs, and meditations about experiencing Jesus in our new realities. In front of each other, they unmasked their hearts. Then I asked the group to name what they appreciated about what was shared. Something magical happens when we say, “I’ve been struggling too. What you shared uplifted my soul.” One’s weakness is another’s strength. Out of dark musty corners, our faith reawakens.

Is it the same for us when we fail to name beauty, forgetting to express gratitude for each day’s small miracles? Psychologists say our brains are bent toward negativity in a five-to-one ratio. We are five times more inclined to cling to the darkness than recognize the light peeping through the curtains.

In verse 23, David names his desire to praise the Lord. He’s audacious enough to exclaim to the person beside him in the pew, “You who fear the LORD, praise him!” He’s telling others to praise God now too? Wasn’t he just crying ugly tears a second ago?

The shift from dismay to praise can feel almost jarring. But somehow through David’s gut-wrenching, bone-popping lament, something more is at work when he pulls himself back in front of others and names his Comfort: “For [God] has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him” (Ps 22:24).

At 3:00 a.m., I joined a chorus of the weeping, the waiting. Like thunderstorms and rainbows, perhaps tears and beauty are tied together. One crosses into the other—you’re wet yet pointing to the sky. In the wake of the Flood, God says: “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Gen 9:13). It’s God’s promise hanging there, just like he said.

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