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.
So David prays, “teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.”
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace (New York: HarperCollins, 1970) 25.