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.

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