9-2-18 - “Paths of Life”
The back and forth in this psalm reflects, if you think about it, the back and forth nature of life itself. In this song of praise we have the psalmist sharing the “before and after” of some event in his life. He begins by praising God because the “enemies” he mentions in the opening verse are not prevailing at that moment, and he pauses to recall what has happened and, at the end, to commit to giving thanks “forever” - regardless of what the next season might bring.
And this psalm presents the full gamut of emotions that we might bring to God: rejoicing, crying for help, thanksgiving, anger, weeping, joy, pride, hiding, dismay, supplication, praise, mourning, and dancing for joy. And they move back and forth between celebration and desperation, danger and help. The psalm never stays for long in any of them, reflecting the ambiguity (the seasons) of life.
Catherine Kelsey points out that, “…hope arises in the repeated movement from difficulty to thanks. The psalm text moves from trouble to relief and to thanks no less than four times. The sheer repetition of the pattern fosters hope that this time too, God will respond.”
Two weeks ago I had the honor of officiating at the funeral of George Culp here in this space. And that morning I shared a remembrance of George built around a passage of scripture that, while I nearly always use it as part of a funeral service, I had never actually preached on it before: Ecclesiastes chapter 3. And you know this passage even if the citation doesn’t sound familiar: “To everything there is a season, a time to every purpose under heaven.” And as I pointed out in that remembrance, we often follow those words in our heads with the lyrics, “Turn, turn, turn,” as the rock band The Byrds did when they took this passage of scripture and turned into a top hit in 1965.
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep
So, as I read and studied this psalm, both this passage and this song also repeatedly came to mind for me as well.
One commentator I read suggested that, “Psalm 30 is like a good novel: things get bad, things get worse, things resolve. The psalmist was flying high, full of his or her own importance, and then crashed. However, it was not a crash and burn, because there was still hope - in God.”
And he goes on to point out that “The psalm is filled with the ebb and flow of the life of faith, as contemporary as it can be.,” and concludes by reminding us that, “The psalmist has the same choice that we and our audiences do: trust or despair.” (From William F. Brosend, “Feasting on the Word”)
To everything there is a season
And a time to every purpose, under heaven
A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together.
And so, even in the midst of the difficult seasons of his life, the psalmist still chooses to lift his prayers and praises to God. And he does so because he realizes that his hope comes from God. There are several things that, as we read through this psalm we can all relate to in our lives and that also reminds us of who and how God is with us. And here’s how that fits in to this theme of Creation Spirituality that we’re exploring and experiencing in this series. One of the principles, you’ll remember, that we talked about previously is that in order to grow stronger in our faith we have to practice our faith, right? So whether that’s prayer, fasting, scripture reading, yoga, or however it is we intentionally try to connect with God, we have to practice. Creation Spirituality says that that work, that practice, is a four-fold journey that is done with intentionality.
The first part of that journey is know as the Via Positiva - the Positive Way, and it begins with our expressing our awe, our delight, our amazement with and in God and God’s creation.
Second, then, is the Via Negative, where we address and confess the uncertainty, the darkness, the suffering that we experience and that we see in the world, and we let go of that to God.
The third part is the Via Creativa, the Creative Way.
It is in this part of the journey that we experience new birth, we celebrate and experience our role as co-creators with God, and experience true passion in our faith journey.
And then finally, we experience healing, justice, and celebration in the Via Transformativa - the Way of Transformation.
And if you look at the structure, the organization of our worship services in this series by looking at the major headings - the “Paths” laid our in the worship folder - you’ll see the four-fold journey modeled in our worship order. But unlike our worship order, rather than being a linear path where we graduate from one into the next and so on, in the paths of life and faith we weave our way through the ways of this four-fold journey. Imagine it as a spiral that we dance as opposed to a ladder that we climb. As the psalmist describes it on the other side of his most recent struggle, and as Ecclesiastes frames it, there are times of good and of bad, of life and of death; there are seasons to and in our lives through which we go back and forth continuously. And as people of faith, we know that our hope for successfully navigating these seasons of life comes from trusting in God’s presence with us, God’s immanence - that God is here, that God is with us in all things. Just because we sometimes endure suffering that occurs in the midst of illness, loss, disasters, or human-directed violence, that does not mean that God is absent.
Theologian John B. Rogers shares, “Here is the God to whom each life is precious and who initiates the relationship that makes possible this prayer.”
And he says that we are able to know God’s presence through the gift of prayer, writing, “To worship such a God is to realize that prayer itself is God’s gift - that in electing to be God with and for us, and not without us, God enables us, encourages us, teaches us to pray. This theology refutes the notion of prayer as essentially a technique born of human desire or necessity, whereby we enlist a useful god to meet our needs and satisfy our wants.”
And to paraphrase Rogers, he suggests that God wants to be in relationship with us (we talked about that in the Creation stories 2 weeks ago), God wants our prayers, whether, as he says, “faith is for us a joyful confidence, a constant struggle, an earnest but elusive hope, a shallow superstition, a distant memory, or something we had but lost, or never had.”
This is a God who wants us, who desires to be with us, who created us in order to be in relationship with us - created us in the divine image for just that reason. But as Rogers cautions, there is a judgment from God. And while I don’t often preach God’s judgment - at least not in the way some are used to hearing it or would like to hear it - I don’t deny that there is judgment. I just don’t believe it takes the form of eternal damnation. I like how Rogers frames it:
“God’s desire for humanity must not cause us to dismiss God’s judgment as of little account, nor does the psalm do so. The psalm describes judgment neither as God’s lashing out at us nor as God’s angry denunciation of us, but as God’s reluctantly letting us go our own way and attain our goal - only to realize that God is not part of it. The psalmist is not cast off or abandoned but allowed to learn that self-centeredness and self-sovereignty are self-defeating. Often it is the case that, in God’s economy, we are punished not so much for our sins as by our sins.”
Perhaps you’ve heard it said that in those times when God seemed far away or absent, it wasn’t God who had turned away, but it was us. God desires relationship - but relationship is a two-way street. God will not force relationship, but God invites it. And God is open to relationship regardless of what season of life we find ourselves in. As Rogers said of today’s psalm, “God’s judgment is infinitely more searching than we know, yet God’s grace keeps pace and ultimately outreaches judgment, turning weeping into joy and mourning into dancing.”
And so the psalmist, realizing this offers praise to God, during the good times and the bad, during the easy seasons and the difficult seasons. God desires relationship - as the psalmist says, God desires our praise. But let’s clarify that a little bit. Why does God need our praise? When we think of it that way - as though God were human - it makes God seem kind of needy, as though God was lacking in self-esteem. About that John Rollefson offers,
“Israel’s prophets (particularly Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah) were always careful to point out the need for ‘right worship’ that emphasized doing justice rather than cultic sacrifice. This is the kind of praise sought by [God] - a praise that reflected Israel’s covenant loyalty not in slavish [servitude] but in righteous behavior. The questions nags, however, and I suspect a more satisfying answer to the question of why God needs the dust’s praise goes back to YHWH’s desire for relationship, suggested in the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 and the creation of humankind in divine image.”
God desires our prayer, it’s the gift of communication that God has given us directly to God. It’s hard, I daresay impossible, to be in relationship with anyone whom you never talk to - with whom you never spend time. The same can be said of our relationship with God.
“But I come to church every week!” we might offer.
And that’s great! But did you know that surveys of Christians have shown that 2/3 of regular church attenders do not expect to encounter God when they come to church. That’s the expectation that they bring with them - the expectation that they will not experience the presence of God in church. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Well, God is here. God is listening. Do these low-expectation people just showing up waiting to have God handed to them on a silver platter? Just being at church doesn’t automatically create a connection or relationship with God anymore than going to a Bruce Springsteen concert creates a relationship with Bruce. It takes two. It takes time. It takes talk.
Yet still, sometimes we shy away from relationship, shy away from God. Verse 5 might shed some light on one reason for that for many people - we have difficulty accepting God’s forgiveness. The psalmist reminds us though, that “Divine ‘anger is but for a moment’; divine ‘favor is for a lifetime.” If we are still feeling judged, distant, or estranged from God, the issue is within us, not from God, according the psalmist. God forgives; the issue is whether we are willing to accept divine forgiveness. When we are unwilling to accept the forgiveness that God freely offers, then in effect we are saying that we are unwilling to commit to changing our behavior, unwilling to change our self-image, unwilling to acknowledge we need help (or even to recognize there might be a problem!), and unwilling to be dependent for forgiveness on the One who we do not control. Because if we’re honest, God can be pretty unwieldy, and we do like to have control.
The spiritual journey can be understood as a dance, moving in and out of four mystical paths, each with their own gifts: awe and wonder; letting go; creativity; compassion and justice. And God is the Lord of the Dance. These "cycles of life,” or as the writer of Ecclesiastes called them, these “seasons,” are born out of the seasons of the planet and remind us that there is a time for everything and that fluctuations of the spirit are part of being human. The questions for us, though, are these: can we accept the Holy invitation to move fully into all the rhythms of life, trusting that God goes with us? Can we make time every day to enter into relationship, to strengthen relationship, with the God who desires to be a part of our lives - regardless of the season we find ourselves in? To everything, there is a season, turn, turn, turn, and a time for every purpose under heaven.
I want to conclude with a story that theologian William F. Brosend shares, “of a non-denominational pastor who was ill and had to be hospitalized while on vacation and was in the ICU. A friend happened to know a priest in the town and asked him to come visit. After the usual pastoral pleasantries, the priest said, “I brought oil for anointing, and the Eucharist.”
“Oh no, that’s all right,” the pastor said. “If you could just pray for me that would be fine.” They looked at each other for a moment, and then the pastor said, “No, no, that’s not what I meant at all. I want everything you have!”
The psalmist reminds us that God has so much to offer us, so much to give to us, if we will but just reach out and say, “Yes, God, I want everything you have!” Amen.