I broke up this morning’s Psalm for more reasons than just length. The Psalm’s opening verses are a testimony to God’s deliverance. David cried out to God, and God responded. From the depths of David’s pain and anguish in the desolate place, God raised him up. David experienced God’s faithfulness when he needed it most.
Before we get too invested in the Psalms suggestion of patient waiting (I get visions of Psalm 23 and God leading us beside still waters), I’ll offer a quick note on the Hebrew here. It’s literally translated something like “waiting, I waited,” which has led some to suggest it is better translated as “I waited impatiently for the Lord.” David is crying out, after all.
Whether patiently or impatiently, David does experience deliverance by God’s hand. God put a new song in David’s mouth, and David goes on to proclaim the news of God’s deliverance--he can’t help but share about God’s steadfast love and faithfulness with the whole congregation.
The life of faith presented in these first ten verses might look something like this. Many of us have experienced God’s faithfulness like this. It’s the kind of hope we read about in Isaiah 40:31, “But those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength, they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not be weary, they will walk and not faint.” We hope in the Lord and life is good right?
I don’t doubt that positive thinking has worked wonders in many of our lives. It certainly has a strong hold in our contemporary culture. Of course the very idea of the “Power of Positive Thinking” came from an American minister, Norman Vincent Peale. It is embedded in North American Christian culture too. Here are a few examples of the kind of memes positive thinking produces:
Helen Keller is right, that this is what the sunflowers do, as she says in her book. And I mean no slight to Keller, whose own experience of desolation was darker and deeper than I will ever know, but by turning away from the shadows, if we ignore and bottle our pain, we miss out on what God is doing in those lonely, dark places.
Now this last slide start to get to a deeper problem here. This sentiment starts to place all of the onus for one’s feelings on our own choice. Some of us are natural optimists, but sometimes we all need to sing the blues, and sometimes so did the Psalmist. I love the observation that Bono, lead singer of the band U2, makes when he claims that “David was the first blues singer.”
Which brings us to our second reading, the latter half of Psalm 40, verses 11-17. Now, scholars will call this a lament… but today let’s listen for the blues. So after having sung of God’s faithfulness, David goes on:
Psalm 40: 11-17
Do not, O Lord, withhold
your mercy from me;
let your steadfast love and your faithfulness
keep me safe forever.
12 For evils have encompassed me
my iniquities have overtaken me,
until I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails me.
13 Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me;
O Lord, make haste to help me.
14 Let all those be put to shame and confusion
who seek to snatch away my life;
let those be turned back and brought to dishonor
who desire my hurt.
15 Let those be appalled because of their shame
who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”
16 But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
say continually, “Great is the Lord!”
17 As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God.
The blues, my friends. David is back in the thick of it, in the darkness, in the desolate pit, the miry bog. He is surrounded again by his enemies, desperate again for God’s salvation. See, this whole Psalm tells the whole story. So often when we expect the life of faith to look like this, instead we get something more like this, a mess.
As Henri Nouwen notes, “A spiritual life doesn’t necessarily lead to tranquility, to peace, or to a beautiful feeling about ourselves or about how nice it is to be together with others. The chipping-away process can hurt.” Nouwen also wrote at length about his own experience of loneliness, comparing it as a wound to the Grand Canyon. Nouwen is considered by many to be a profound author and spiritual guide, and perhaps it is because his own faith was big enough to hold his pain and God’s peace in tension with each other.
Mother Teresa’s experience of the desolate place was even more profound and withering. After her death, letters between she and her spiritual directors were published, revealing just how pained her spiritual life really was. Writing to her spiritual director in 1957, she said: “In the darkness . . . Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me? The child of your love — and now become as the most hated one. The one — you have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer . . . Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. Love — the word — it brings nothing. I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
This woman who became the embodiment of grace for generations of Christians, who was a ready answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?”-- this woman was privately suffering. She knew the blues.
So here’s the thing. Right here is the ugly stuff. The Psalms make space for all of it: the anger, the vengeance, the really poisonous stuff. No cover-up required, because this too is part of human experience. The Psalms beckon us to honesty, to authenticity.
Not every emotion is controlled by how I decide I want to feel. This is Jesus crying out from the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” Or, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I mean, what crazy kind of Gospel pins its hopes on the forsaken Son of God as he hangs on a cross, highlighting his very human weakness? There’s an obvious reason why Muslims believe that someone switched places with Jesus on the cross before his death. They just can’t imagine a prophet who is so weak!
But God is right there in this too. God is in the pain with us. When David concludes the Psalm with a plea that God not delay, we can recall that he has already assured us that God’s faithful and steadfast love were already present in the pit, and they are there with him in his current pain, and here with us in ours too.
Walter Brueggemann describes the life of faith as a progression from a secure orientation to a painful disorientation to a surprising re-orientation. And while David leaves us awaiting his latest re-orientation, he has testified to this very thing in the past.
Ten years ago yesterday, on a Sunday afternoon I got a phone call that relayed what was and still is the most painful disorientation I have ever experienced in my life. Though much of it is still a blur, I think it was probably Deb Anderson who called to let me know that her son Jacob and his girlfriend Erica had been in a car accident, and Erica had died. For those of you who weren’t around then, Erica was a sophomore in high school and an important part of our youth group here at Southminster. She was creative and energetic, and her kindness fostered a gracious community around her.
In the days and months that followed we cried out together--why God, why? It felt like evils had encompassed us, and with the Psalmist we pleaded with God not to withhold his mercy from us. In the darkness we waited for God’s deliverance, waiting for the promise of Romans 8:28 which reminds us, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” The good that was to come could not remove our grief, but in time we could again feel a song of praise emerging from the darkness of uncertainty we shared in her absence.
Because God was with us in the mess.
And God is with us. No matter what blues we sing, God is with us. God is with us when we learn our job is being eliminated. When we admit that we or someone we love is struggling with addiction. When a loved one dies. When our children are hurt. When a friendship is cut-off. God is with us when bombs go off in a train station, or are dropped from an unmanned drone onto a wedding party or hospital. God is with us when words of hatred and anger fly. God is with us when we cannot feel his presence, in the dark night of the soul. When Jesus breathed his last on that cross and the disciples hid, God was with them.
God’s faithful love goes before us, again and again.
And this is how life goes. It looks like this (This is not a surfboard). From a season of security and stability our lives are turned upside down. From the pit and mire we cry out to God and await for God’s deliverance. Because no matter how long we wait, through our highs and our lows, our consolations and desolations, God is in it with us. In Jesus we know that God has walked this path ahead of us. In Jesus, God is Elohim, God with us, over and over again.
In the waning days of the winter of 1983, U2 was in the recording studio in Dublin, Ireland, wrapping up their third album, War. The recording sessions had not been easy, and the album is full of the strain that was present in Ireland’s political strife. The band was sick of the war between Catholics and Protestants that was tearing through their country. The studio manager was kicking them out the door to make way for the next band, and they had just a few minutes to put together the last track.
Bono picked up his Bible and opened to Psalm 40 for inspiration from the original blues-man himself. The song they cobbled together carries these themes of God’s faithfulness and the waiting and yearning that comes when we find ourselves back in the pit. “I will sing a new song,” rings out the chorus, coupled with the question of waiting, “How long?”
As we sing, we can be assured that God is with us in both the new song and in the waiting.