Saturday, July 4, 2020

Dealing with Disquiet


Psalm 42
July 5, 2020

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.


Well, here it is: a psalm fit for a pandemic! We don’t know the original setting of its composition. We have no access to the specific circumstances that prompted this poetic prayer. But we resonate with the emotions.

The psalmist says, “I remember processing into the house of God. There was a crowd in the sanctuary. Everybody was singing. Everybody burst into songs of thanksgiving. There was a multitude. I remember that.” But looking around this sanctuary, there is a smattering of saints, all six feet from one another. A few here, a few there. If there is a multitude, it is the dispersed community in Internet Land. Hardly anybody is singing.

We are living through a disruptive and awkward season. Jobs have been lost. Vacations are canceled. Loved ones have to remain a safe distance apart. One of the married couples in our church family is already split between two cities in two different states. The ruling has just come out: if she comes home from Tennessee to spend some summer time with her husband, she must first be quarantined for fourteen days. So the psalmist says, “My soul longs for you.”

Writing about the psalms, someone has said these are “prayers meant to be overheard by others.”[1] Think about that for a minute. A lot of us say our prayers as if they are ours alone: my concern, my worry, my words. But the psalms belong to all of us. And when we don’t have the words for prayer, the prayers are given to us. When we come across a psalm that stands some distance from our experience, it is still a gift. It reminds us of what other people are praying. The words are waiting for us, available for when we need them.

So today, here is Psalm 42. It comes as a stanza and a refrain, a second stanza and the refrain. Originally it was probably united with the next one, Psalm 43, which comes with a single stanza and the identical refrain. Yet whoever split them into two made a good decision. Psalm 42 stands on its own. The governing theme is sadness.

Life is not as it used to be. What we thought we could count upon has been disrupted. All the old certainties are now questioned. The familiar rituals and routines have unraveled. The poet describes the impact: “tears are my food, night and day,” “my soul is downcast,” and “as I remember the happy songs of the past, my inner being is disquieted.”

That’s not a word we use every day, but we know what it means. The prefix sounds like disturb, disgust, and disappointment. Disquiet is the opposite of quiet. Not noisy, so much as anxious, unsettled, uneasy. Disquieted – do we know how that feels? I think we do.

And let me point out the awkward truth: Psalm 42 doesn’t give any quick answers. No simple fixes. No rushing to resolution. The poet beckons us to hope, to hope in God. I agree with him or her, whoever this is, but I can’t help but wonder if the poet is trying to convince his or her own soul. Most of this psalm speaks of a longing in the heart, a thirst not yet quenched, a hope not yet realized.

In the meantime, what do we do? If the psalmist has no quick answer, neither do I. I admit this is unsatisfying.

Some years ago, we put a literature rack out in the narthex and filled it with brochures. It was intended to be helpful, offering tips on getting through the loss of a loved one, what to do if your teenager got mixed up in trouble, things like that. One brochure was titled, “Your Negative Emotions.” Someone saw it there, grabbed the whole stack, and knocked on my door.

“We can’t put this out there,” she said. Why? “Because it’s so…so negative.”

“What’s wrong with that?” I asked. “Well, uh, I think it gives the wrong message,” she declared.

I responded, “But do you think any negative people ever walk into the door of our church?” She sputtered, “Oh, um, yes, I suppose they do. But I think we need to be preaching positivity. We need to lift people’s spirits, not let them stay negative.”

It was at that point I shared with her a statistic that I had heard. It came from a psychological study of church music. The context was those congregations that fired their organists, got rid of the choirs, and brought in guitarists playing soft-edged songs that were perpetually optimistic. In those congregations, said the study, the rate of clinical depression was twice the rate of churches that sang songs in a minor key.  

The point: if you shove down the negative emotions, if you gloss over them, if you pretend they are not there, you might be creating even more damage, both in others as well as yourself. The church is not called to speak of plastic optimism. The church is called to speak the authentic truth.

“We preach Christ crucified,” is how the apostle Paul put it. There is the hope of resurrection, the hope of God restoring what has been broken, but that is something we wait for God to do, not something we manufacture through razzle-dazzle light shows and preachers in white shoes.  

So while we wait for God to do what we hope God to do, what do we do with what we feel? I’m talking about the stewardship of our emotions. We know about the stewardship of our money. We are called to a stewardship of nature and the environment. Let’s talk about responsible stewardship of what we feel.

That well-intentioned deacon who wanted to hide the brochure about negative feelings was doing something that our culture has trained us to do: to shove whatever is going on inside of us even further down. Don’t let anybody see what’s going on in you. Maintain the stiff upper lip. Big boys don’t cry. Strong women keep their hearts to themselves. This is the recipe for greater harm.

What our colleagues in the healing arts have told us is that if we don’t work through the pain, we will inflict it on others. As one said it simply, “Hurt people hurt people.” The first person that I harm, of course, is myself. But it doesn’t stop there, as you know. Have a difficult day, come home, grouch around, yell at the dog, kick the people you love. Hurt people hurt people.

Fortunately, there are professionals trained to help us. There are friends, too. The first tool in their kit is the gift of listening, of coming along side with an open ear. They don’t try to fix anything. They don’t have quick answers. They listen and wait long enough to hear what’s going on.

When Parker Palmer, the spiritual writer, was diagnosed twice with clinical depression, he says the worst visitors were those who said, “I know exactly how you feel.” He says he heard nothing beyond their opening words. “I knew it was a falsehood,” he says. “No one can fully experience another person’s mystery.” They offered sympathy out of their own anxiety. They pretended to be experts as a way of avoiding the pain.

By contrast, he names one friend who asked if Parker would allow him to come and sit with him. Just sit. It was a special, Christ-like love, he says. “He never tried to invade my awful inwardness with false comfort or advice; he simply stood on its boundaries, modeling the respect for me and my journey – and the courage to let it be – that I myself needed if I were to endure.”

This kind of love was not expressed in pious words or empty cheerleading, as if nothing good can happen unless we make it happen. Rather this love was patient, kind, not insisting on its own way. This is the love that endures, for we were created to endure. And we are created to love one another, to “share the sympathizing tear.

That is one of the clues in Psalm 42. After each stanza is a repeated refrain: Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. These are words to repeat together. They are personal words, but shared words. If we are in pain, we are part of a community in pain. Others are struggling, too. In suffering, there can be solidarity. That’s the first lesson. Nobody needs to suffer alone. We don’t need to suffer alone.

A second lesson is right in front of our noses: the psalms are a gift from God through a three-thousand-year-old community that has endured plenty of suffering. The psalmist weeps when he hears the mocking voices around him, “Where is your God?” That’s what they said to Jesus on the cross, as well: “Where is your God?” Yet rather than give in and join the chorus, the faithful response is to make this a matter of prayer.

In the words of Psalm 42:

I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”

The answer does not come right away. The answer hardly ever comes right away. But the question must be asked. And the writer Kathleen Norris reminds us of the paradox. In one breath, we conceive of God is “my rock,” and in the next, “Why have you forgotten me?” One asks, “Why are you cast down, my soul?” and the other responds, “Hope in God, my savior and my God.”

She writes,

Who has not heard these voices within, at one moment expressing hope and joy, and in the next reflecting doubt and sorrow? This psalm challenges me, even is it allows me a safe harbor where I might remember and give thanks for all the good gifts that bring both joy and pain. The two cannot be neatly separated in grief, or in life itself… the tears work best with praise and affirmation…Sorrow without thanksgiving would be despair; thanksgiving without repentance would be a presumptuous illusion.[2]

So we pray the whole jumbled mess, voicing both “memory and desire, stirring dull roots with the spring rain.” The psalms are scripts for our souls, a way to stay in communion with God even when we are disquieted.

Speaking of God, the answer for our questions lies with God, and God alone. What we are learning all over again is that human progress is always compromised by human weakness. Human wisdom is always undermined by human foolishness. This weekend, we sing Happy Birthday to a single nation that is torn into pieces by selfish individualism, without any regard for what is good for all the people in our nation.

Why are we cast down and disquieted? Let us count the ways. So we pray and wait for God. And we remember what kind of God we have.

To give us another text, I found a few words from W.E.B. DuBois, the eloquent thinker who truly believed that all people are created equally in the image of God. In voicing his own disquiet as an African American, he pointed ahead to the final justice of God. He could hear it in the Christian spirituals, what he called the “Sorrow Songs” that emerged from authentic human pain. And he says:

Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope – a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond.

He took a breath, and then he added:

If somewhere in this whirl and chaos of things there dwells Eternal Good, then (shortly) in His good time America shall rend the veil and the prisoned shall go free. Free, free, as the sunshine trickling down the morning into these high windows of mine, free as yonder fresh young voices welling up to me from the caverns of brick and mortar below – swelling with song, instinct with life, tremulous and darkening bass.[3]

With DuBois, we trust in the ultimate justice of things. So we pray,

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

And we leave the door open for hope to come home.


(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Gerald Sheppard, “Theology and the Book of Psalms,” Interpretation 46, April 1992. 145.
[2] Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008) 279-280.
[3] W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1994) 162.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Questions to Ask When Nobody is Watching


Psalm 13
June 28, 2020
William G. Carter

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.


Years ago, thanks to this church, I reclaimed a piece of my spiritual heritage. At the time we had an organist who traced her roots to the country of Wales. She was delighted to learn that a thin slice of my ancestry also originated in the green valleys of her homeland. And when I discovered that she spent her spare time traveling around the region to lead Welsh hymn festivals, I asked her to do that here.

She pushed back and said, “This is not a Welsh congregation.” “No,” I replied, “but for one Sunday afternoon, we could become Welsh.” She agreed. We set the date, secured the funding, started making the cookies.

When the day arrived, the first man in the door was short with craggy features. He had wisps of hair coming out of his ears. Bent over, hobbling with a cane, he seemed to have more than his share of physical infirmities, yet he was determined to arrive early and get a good seat. When the music started, he leaned forward, sat up straight, and began to weep.  

In a biography of Dylan Thomas, someone described “the strange, yearning, overpowering emotion at the heart of Welsh hymn-singing” this way:  

Like the wind gathering in a howl, came the slow, unearthly cadences of a hymn…The hymn was beyond the choir, beyond them all. It was like some dark, clouded flame, leaping up in its somber beauty, remote and pure.[1]

Listen, I bring this up, because a lot of the ancient Psalms – including this one – share some of the same qualities with Welsh hymns. They do not move quickly. Nobody is in a hurry. The music is infused with deep passion. The singer embodies the pathos of living on earth while aiming toward heaven. And a good measure of the music inhabits a minor key.

Even if we do not know much about music, we can recognize when a tune is in a minor key. A minor key signifies clouds, not sunshine; tension, not resolution. A minor key expresses sadness, not happiness; yearning, not completion; pilgrimage, not destination. The plain truth is life is hard. We can put on a happy face and manufacture some happiness, yet when nobody is looking, when nobody must be convinced otherwise, the honest questions bubble up.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

My friend Martin Tel is the lead musician at Princeton Theological Seminary. A tall, thin man of Dutch descent, he was raised in a church that sang the psalms. Not just the happy ones, not merely the psalms that sing, “Praise the Lord, God’s glories show,” but the psalms that emerge from a broken heart.

When his father was a child, the Nazis occupied their city in the Netherlands. Sermons were monitored for subversive messages, but the singing was not. In the morning, his father said, they might sing from Psalm 68, “Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered, let those who hate him flee before him.” At evening vespers, the church would sing from another psalm, How long, O Lord? Save those doomed to die, repay the people who are doing this to us.”[2]

These were the “necessary songs,” Martin says. The Dutch people found the psalms were a gift to voice their fear, doubt, and sorrow. As such, they were more than expressions of emotion. They were a serious lesson in the school of prayer.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

These are the questions that begin Psalm 13. They remain unanswered. The first is a personal question, “Lord, will you forget me?” The next is directed directly to God: “will you hide your face?” The third question expresses the emotional effects: “pain in my soul, sorrow in my heart.” And the fourth names an imbalance that causes pain: “How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”

How long? How long? How long? How long?

For us, this is a psalm that needs no interpretation. Not under our circumstances! By my count, we are seventeen weeks into a pandemic. Seventeen weeks of separation and isolation from one another. “How long, O Lord?” How much longer? We do not know.

Is the pandemic winding down? Some people think so. They refuse to wear masks. They behave like they always did. They believe the whole thing is a media scam, even though 128,000 neighbors have died. Others ask, “How long, O Lord, do we have to live with fools like those?” If the pandemic has exposed anything for the past seventeen weeks, it is the truth that Americans don’t like being told what to do, even if it is for their own well-being.

“How long, O Lord,” indeed. The psalm reminds us of what we might be afraid to say. So let me say it: the eternal God is not always in a hurry. The eternal God rarely works according to our plans. You can pray for a sunny day, but you get what you get. You can pray for a happy life, but happiness must be pursued. You can pray for good health, but that prayer is always conditioned by human weakness. God rules the universe. We do not. And the psalms recognized there is a distance what God promises and when we receive it.

When we forego patience and step into the perceived vacuum, that is when we set ourselves up for trouble. So
Jesus tells a parable about a householder who takes a journey to a far-off country but promises to return. He leaves his servants in charge and doesn’t return right away. In fact, he takes his sweet old time. And in that absence, the servants get into trouble. They believe they can do whatever they want. They grab whatever they wish. They justify their whims with their own words. When the boss finally returns, he has a real mess on his hands. (Matthew 24:45-51)

What was the issue? Too much time on their hands. A destructive form of idleness. Rather than live in trust, rather than live in peace, rather than live in patience and perseverance, neighbors become enemies. Smart people do stupid things. Those who could be building begin destroying. It is all in that question, “How long?”

What makes this question a matter of prayer is how we address it: “How long, O Lord?” We recognize the gap and we give it to God. And not just any god, either! The psalmist prays to Yahweh, the God who brought us out of Egypt, the God who is bound to us through covenant, the God who declares, “You people are my children. You belong to me.” It is because we claim that relationship that we can pray our discontent and call out for help.

By analogy, I think of a young adult whom I know pretty well. Years ago, she did some babysitting. There was one family with three kids. She was out with them one day and thought it might be fun to introduce them to the two dogs who lived in her home. So they paid a visit, and these very attentive dogs were extremely interested.

The babysitter was talking with the oldest child and answering a question from the youngest child. Suddenly she saw the middle child stood frozen in place. Both dogs were right on him, sniffing away. He would not move. Didn’t know what to do. He didn’t have a lot of experience with very attentive dogs. Time froze in place, until he murmured, “Katie, a little help here please.” She snapped her fingers and the dogs backed off.

That is why the prayer of Psalm 13 is not “how long” but “how long, O Lord?” We are calling out to someone we know. Someone we trust. Someone who can break through the frozen moment and provide the assistance we need.

“How long, O Lord? How long? How long?” The psalmist says, “Consider me. Pay attention to me. Look at me. You don’t want my enemy to say, ‘I’ve won.’ You don’t want my foes to sing because I’m shaken up.”

This is daring prayer. This is Moses coming down from the mountain after a long delay, discovering that in his absence the Israelites forged a golden calf. In the absence of Moses, the people stepped into trouble. They melted down all their earrings, fashioned an idol, and started dancing around it. God is understandably upset, and ready to blast them all into the sand.

But Moses says, “Lord, these are your people. They belong to you. You went to all that trouble to free them from slavery in Egypt. Now, you don’t want the Egyptians to make fun of you, and say, ‘Look, God freed the slaves only to let them perish in the desert.’ Consider them, Lord. Consider what people are going to say about you. You do not want the Egyptians to say, “We have prevailed.” God heard that prayer. While anybody else might have said, “how long,” Moses called on the relationship God had with the people.

According to the Bible, it is OK to pray this way. Not only OK, but highly recommended. If we belong to God, if we have been claimed in the waters of baptism and named in the name of the Trinity, we can lean into that relationship and ask for our lives to be given back to us. Remember the Welshman who sang the slow, minor-key hymns, waiting for his redemption. The Dutch family during the war prayed for the enemies to be scattered. The families afflicted by covid-19 pray for the end of illness and disruption.

All our prayers are lifted into the mystery of the will of God, the God who desires that every one of his children will flourish. Every single one. No matter what it takes. No matter how long until it happens.  

One of the blessings of this congregation is that people want their preacher to be as helpful as possible. So much so that they will send along material that could improve his sermons. Maybe they are the ones who have been praying, “How long, O Lord?”

In any case, this week someone sent in a story about a preacher who attended a men's breakfast in the middle of a farming community. The group had asked an older farmer, decked out in bib overalls, to say grace for the morning breakfast.

"Lord, I hate buttermilk", the farmer began. The preacher opened one eye to glance at the farmer and wonder where this was going.

The farmer loudly proclaimed, "Lord, I hate lard." Now the preacher was growing concerned.

Without missing a beat, the farmer continued, "And Lord, you know I don't much care for raw white flour". The preacher once again looked up to glance around the room. He saw that he wasn't the only one looking uncomfortable.

Then the farmer added, "But Lord, when you mix them all together and bake them, I do love warm fresh biscuits. So Lord, when things come up that we don't like, when life gets hard, when we don't understand what you're doing or what you are saying, help us to relax, be patient, trust you, and wait until you are done mixing. It will probably be even better than biscuits. Amen."


(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] John Ackerman, Dylan Thomas: His Life and Work (Springer, 2016) p. 11
[2] Martin Tel, “Necessary songs: the case for singing the entire Psalter,” The Christian Century, 8 January 2014, p. 20.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Walk This Way


Psalm 86
Ordinary 12
June 21, 2020
William G. Carter

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long.
Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication.
There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.
Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth;
give me an undivided heart to revere your name.
I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.
For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.
O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life, and they do not set you before them.
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl.
Show me a sign of your favor, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame,
because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.


This Covid-19 pandemic has affected all of us in many ways. For three months, we have lived as hermits. We have been eating our own food and waving to one another from a distance. Sometimes we have lost track of what day it was. The loss of familiar routines has scrambled our schedules. All of us are a lot more cautious about the contact we have with others.

But I have noticed positive outcomes as well. Those of us with families are eating meals with them. All of us are rediscovering the art of conversation. We have finished rainy day projects and developed new skills. And in my neighborhood, everybody is walking.

My street is a half-mile horseshoe. There are people walking on it from dawn until dark. The senior man with the coffee mug and the walking stick saunters by as the mourning doves wake up. Three power-walking soccer moms in spandex charge up the incline side by side. Late in the afternoon, here comes the dad with a new pandemic beard and a backwards Yankees cap, conversing with his middle school daughter. Shortly after supper, mom pushes a stroller while dad shepherds a couple of circling siblings.

From the look of it, everybody is on their feet. When this virus is finally done, they are going to be in great shape. They are walking.

Walking is one of the best things we can do. Thirty minutes of walking each day can reduce blood pressure, improve weight loss, positively affect blood sugar, even out stress, and clear a foggy head. Not only that, walkers start noticing all the little things they normally speed by: the new patch of day lilies at the green house, the insulated windows in yellow house, and the curious things that the neighbors put out on garbage night.

It's no wonder the Bible often refers to the spiritual life as a good walk. That is how Psalm 86 describes it. Smack-dab in the middle of this psalm is a prayer: “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.” Walk, not crawl. Walk, not sprint. Walk like a human being, with one foot in front of another. The truth of God cannot lead us anywhere if we remain seated. We must get up on our feet and start moving.
  
So what I propose today is we take a walk with psalmist. Let’s keep in step with him, see what he sees, listen to what he says, and pray as he prays. Since Psalm 86 is labeled a “psalm of David,” let’s call him David.

The first thing to notice: David is having a tough day. The first words out of his mouth are these, “Listen to me, Lord, I’m poor and needy.” If David is the David of scripture, it is a remarkable thing for the King of Israel to say. Certainly, kings have their bad days. They have troubles popping up all the time. But most kings I have ever heard about will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid looking poor. None of them ever want to appear needy.

It seems David is in danger. “Preserve my life,” he prays. So I imagine him darting between the shadows, trying to stay ahead of whatever threat lurks in the dark.

If this is King David of the Bible, maybe he is worried about Absalom, his renegade son. Ever since Absalom’s daughter was attacked, he has been nothing but trouble. Once upon a time he was a cute little kid, standing around, combing his long locks of hair. But now he plots to steal the throne even though his father is still sitting on it.

So David goes for a long walk. “Preserve my life, Lord,” he says. “The insolent rise up against me. A band of violent marauders is coming after my neck. Not only have they no regard for me, Lord, they pay no attention to you.” And when enemies are lawless enough to ignore the scriptures, ignore the commandments, ignore God’s basic instructions for life, they become a law unto themselves – and that’s when chaos ensues.   

As we walk with David, we are stunned by his vulnerability. He admits he needs help. He confesses that he cannot prevail on his own power. He knows he cannot save his own skin and he says so. This is honest prayer. No illusion, no sidestepping, no hiding. David sums up his prayer by saying, “In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me.”

Let’s stop walking a minute and ask the question. How many times in the past three months have we bottled up our fears and not spoken them to God? We sit before the television and expect it to provide all the answers. We look in every direction for help – east, west, north, south – but we do not look up. We get to the end of our rope and hang on even longer, assuming some breakthrough will come like magic. And the whole time, are we crying out for God to help?

David dares to speak the truth. “I can’t do this difficult thing,” he says. “I don’t see how it will turn out.” But he keeps walking. He does not stop. He does not give up, and in a deep sense he does give in – he is ready to welcome the holy help that he cannot find in himself.

And after a while there is a turn in the road. The hill he has been climbing begins to level out. The path flattens. For some inexplicable reason, David changes up and starts complimenting God. “You, O Lord, are good and forgiving,” he exclaims. “You are abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.” Then he says it again, in words that echo other psalms, “You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

Who knows what happened? The prayer for help is apparently answered. We don’t know how. Perhaps the panic in his soul has leveled out. Maybe a few more steps and a bit more breathing has helped. A good walk can do that, you know. If you keep walking, it helps put some distance between you and your fear.

I learned this from the wisdom of a wise old sage. “There are many fearsome dangers that don’t look so bad after a good night’s sleep,” he said. He was right. When I survey some of the worries that have consumed me after dark, they don’t look so bad in daylight. Some of our greatest fears are not so frightening if we are able to take a long view, a God-sized view. God is present in the pain as well as the relief. This is what we learn as we walk.

David says God is “slow to anger.” That’s what it looks like to take a long view. It is difficult to perceive of an eternal God when we are worried now, when we want everything fixed now, when we presume to know what’s best. There is some good news in declaring God is slow to anger, that God is not in any hurry. This is what opens us to the mercy and grace, the steadfast love and abounding faithfulness.

David is in good company. Moses spent forty years walking to the Promised Land. He paused a couple of times to say, “God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Numbers 14:18) The prophet Joel said it again, many years later, “God is slow to anger and abounding steadfast love,” suggesting that now’s the time to start walking with the Lord (Joel 2:13). The prophet Jonah walked to Nineveh to preach gloom and doom, never expecting God would be slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and of course, God won out (Jonah 4:2).

This is the definition of grace. God always wins out. It may take a while. It may happen quietly or in ways you never imagined. But the steadfast love that abounds so much is the steadfast love that endures forever. When we keep walking, eventually we will see it. This is the way of God. This is the truth we cannot see until we put one foot in front of the other.

Psalm 86 sounds like a lot of the other 149 psalms. The scholars classify it as a lament. A lament is more than a complaint. It is a prayer that recognizes the distance between how life feels today and what God promises. So many times, there is a distance. Life is not always sunshine and roses. The gift of the psalms of lament is that they call us to pray. They call us to be honest. They call us to reach toward God even if it looks like God is not there.

We are in a season of lament. Our freedom has been limited by a virus we cannot see, and some among us can testify how deadly it can be. Too many people have ignored the warnings, thinking they can outrun the consequences. When the spring sunshine returned, some pretended there is no danger at all. Yet public health officials have not wavered from their wisdom, so here we are, limited, diminished, frustrated, and impatient. Let’s lament the whole mess and make it an opportunity for prayer.

The pandemic’s threat has been more than the dangerous virus. We have also been confronted of the unpleasant truth that some have health care and others do not. Some can escape to the second home in the mountains and others can only stay home in the South Bronx. Some have privileges they do not even realize, and others are excluded, harmed, or murdered because of the color of their skin. The national wound of racism is exposed yet one more time. The truth is inescapable, and the slow work of justice is gaining momentum. Again, this is an occasion for lament, for us to state our national pain and to pray for God to make it right.

And perhaps this is the reason a series on the psalms bubbled up for me as the texts for our summer. In coming weeks, we will continue to pray with the saints of Israel and church. We pray because life is not what we wish it would be. We pray if things get better. And as we pray, we are walking with God. That is the word for today.

Today, let me conclude with the words of Frederick Buechner, the wise Presbyterian saint. “If you want to know who you are,” he writes, “you could do a lot worse than look to your feet for an answer.” It’s all about walking, both when life is hard and when God’s grace is revealed.

When you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.[1]

So David prays, “teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.”


(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace (New York: HarperCollins, 1970) 25.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

When You Receive a Second Chance

Psalm 116

Ordinary 11

June 14, 2020

William G. Carter

 

I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my supplications.

Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.

The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;

I suffered distress and anguish.

Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful.

The Lord protects the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.

Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.

I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.

I kept my faith, even when I said, “I am greatly afflicted”;

I said in my consternation, “Everyone is a liar.”

What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord,

I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.

Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.

Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your serving girl. You have loosed my bonds.

I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord.

I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people,

in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the Lord!

 

As we spend a summer with the psalms, it becomes clear that many of us have our favorites. The psalms are well-polished prayer-poems. Some of the verses sparkle like jewels. The phrases lodge in our hearts. The Lord is my shepherd. Make a joyful noise to the Lord. I look to the hills; where does my help come from? Maybe you are already reciting a verse or humming a song.

So you can imagine how I perked up when I heard the psalm for today in a movie. The film was “The Preacher’s Wife,” now many years old. It was a remake of an older movie called “The Bishop’s Wife.” The preacher’s wife was portrayed by Whitney Houston. At a dramatic moment, she sang, “I love the Lord; he heard my cry.” I sat up and said, “Psalm 116.”

Then, to my astonishment, I discovered that setting of the psalm, was published in our Presbyterian hymnal. It is a Gospel song by Richard Smallwood. At the first opportunity, I selected the song to be sung by the congregation. They did not sound like Whitney Houston; but ever since the words have been inscribed on my soul.

Long before we sang it, the Jews sang it. Psalm 116 is one of the six psalms, the Hallel psalms, which are sung or recited every year at Passover. It resonates with the drinking of the four cups of wine. We can hear this in the psalm: “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.”

 

So this is a psalm that Jesus knew well. At his last supper with his friends, he lifted the cup of salvation and called on the name of the Lord. The next time we lift that cup, we have our scripture text.

And did you notice? In between the professed love of the Lord and the lifting of the cup, there is somebody in a whole lot of trouble. We do not know the particulars. The specific details have been sanded away. Yet three times the poet speaks of death. Death was close. “Sheol,” the shadow of death, hung overhead as a threat. The psalmist was not sure if the trouble could be survived. There was fear and terror, distress and anguish, and plenty of tears.

We must not rush past these things. The pain is real, both the pain of the body and the trauma of the soul. Maybe it is a disease. Or a physical illness. Or some kind of threat. Have you ever wondered if you were going to die?

I think of the Last Supper. Jesus breaks the Passover bread and hands it around the table. He lifts the cup. Then Judas Iscariot slips out to meet up with the thugs who will steal away our Lord. According to some of the accounts, Jesus knows he is going to die. After he and the others sing this psalm, they go out to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus will pray, “Let this cup pass. If it is possible, don’t let me die.” As we know, the prayer to be spared was not for him.

Similarly, I have sat by the bedside of those in great danger. The heart is not well. Breathing is labored. The surgery is risky. The illness seems to be winning. Nobody can cheapen that moment. It is not the time for joking around. It would be vulgar to change the subject. We are facing the shadow of death. The only appropriate prayer is the prayer of this psalm, “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”

Then comes the astonishing answer, even if it is subtle or unstated. The EMT’s got there in time. The surgery went well. It looks like we got all the cancer cells. Relief comes with the recognition: “I’m going to make it, at least this time. I’m actually going to get through this.” 

So what we have here is a salvation psalm. That is salvation with a small “s.” On occasion, the Jewish scriptures dream of a final salvation, when the wolf lies down with the lamb, when the holy judgment of God corrects every injustice. There will be a final Day of the Lord when everything is set right. Before that Day ever comes, there are smaller salvations, important interventions, daily rescues, where the hidden and mysterious God is revealed not only as righteous, but as gracious and merciful.

This is the movement of this psalm: I was in trouble, I prayed, God rescued me. I think the reason it is in the Bible is to provide a signpost for all of us. As we travel through all the twists and turns of life’s journey, here is a marker from somebody who got some help. And not a little bit of help, but some lifesaving help!

We should not regard this as magic, namely, that if you pray, God will automatically make everything better. It does not always work that way. We are creatures, mere mortals with a limited amount of time and ability. This is a fact that none of us can outrun. Simply murmuring the words, “Lord, save my life,” is no assurance that God will undo all the other forces at work in creation. Maybe you have noticed there are a lot of prayers which have not been answered, at least not yet. Sometimes we run out of time before our prayers are answered.

But while prayer is not magic, it does lead us into the Holy Mystery of who God is and what God is doing. Who is this God whom the psalmist loves? It is the God who provides the second chance. This is the God who gave us our lives, who is able to give back our lives if something should threaten to take them away. This is the God we are learning to love, who calls us to love one another. When we love God enough to pray for help, we are stepping into the profound mystery of how God continues to save the whole world.

These are noble thoughts. I was wondering how I might talk about them today, even describe them from a distance. And then I heard a story. Like the field report from the psalm, it is a story so good that it needs to be shared.

This year, 2020, is the one hundredth anniversary of Dave Brubeck’s birth. The great jazz musician died eight years ago, but his legacy continues, both in the music world and in his own family. Four of his sons are musicians, and they planned a whole year of concerts around the world to celebrate Dave’s centennial. That was before the corona virus shut down the planet and cancelled just about everything.

Three of Dave’s sons were in London in early March, playing sold-out shows in Ronnie Scott’s renowned jazz club. They played seven shows in five days, and then went on tour from there. By March 13, Darius Brubeck, the oldest son, wasn’t feeling well. His brothers Chris and Dan had already flown back to the US. All three later tested positive for Covid-19. Chris had a mild case, quarantined at home, and recovered. Dan had it worse and spent some time in an intensive care ward. Darius got it worst of all.

He is 73 years old, and well known as a composer and educator outside of the US. Years ago, Darius co-founded a jazz school at a university in South Africa, which is the country where he met his wife Catherine. Following his father’s lead, he worked to bridge the gap between people of differing skin colors. Like his famous father, he took his music around the world.

But by the middle of March he was deathly ill. He says, “I resisted going to hospital for six days despite having a high fever and a persistent cough. Big mistake.” He ended up on a ventilator for a month in an ICU of a British hospital. He was given a slim chance of survival. And it was not only death that he feared, but the thought of never seeing his beloved wife ever again. He said, “I developed a rather paranoid notion that Cathy wouldn’t know what had happened to me.”

As he lay in his hospital bed, fearing the worst, Darius confesses he “really didn’t know what was going on for a lot of this time.” He faded in and out of consciousness, in a facility where his family was not permitted to visit. But a singular memory got him through the long ordeal. It was a line from a choral piece that his brother Chris had composed.

Shortly before his hospitalization, the brothers had performed the piece with an orchestra and choir in Fribourg, Switzerland. Even in his confused and sedated state, Darius says, “I kept my sanity by repeating, actually mentally singing the last line of the piece, ‘Love is stronger than death.’”[1] Love is stronger than death.

Darius is now recovering with his wife at their home in the south of England. It has been hard on both of them. Cathy suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after nearly losing her husband. Darius has a way to go with physical therapy. But they have been rescued from something that could have turned a whole lot worse. God has given them another lease on life.

This is a story, like some of our own stories, that resonates with the praise in this psalm:


Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful.

The Lord protects the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.

Return, O my soul . . . for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.

I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.

Have you ever been granted a second chance? I am sure some of us have. The best evidence will always be shown in what we do with the gift we have received. The psalmist says, “Now that I’m back in the land of the living, I am going to pay my vows to God. I will make my way back to the courts of the house of God. I need Somebody to thank.”

And let me tell you what Darius and Cathy Brubeck have done. Twenty of his piano students, now professionals, have given a large concert in Durban, South Africa, where Darius taught for many years. It’s a “thanksgiving concert,” they said, in thanks to God for healing their beloved professor. All the proceeds are supporting the Denis Hurley Center, which provides a home for the homeless of that city. The motto for the center comes from the words of Jesus, “I have come that you may have life, life in all its fullness.” (John 10:10)

This is the shape of the Christian life. This is how God’s Spirit moves among us. “I love the Lord, who heard my cry.” And when God helps, it is not enough to keep it to ourselves. We show our thanks by loving those around us in their need.


(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.