In a few short phrases, this Psalm cuts through to the heart of so many of our sources of anxiety, fear, and confusion.
The Psalmist tells us to put aside all fear that in the end those committed to evil – which in Scripture are courses of life that fly in the face of Micah 6:8’s call to do justice, love mercy & compassion, and walk with humility before God – will triumph. I know I have felt the fear which the Psalmist answers. When you’ve focused your life on trying to serve God the best you know how and yet have so many things you’ve worked to build seemingly slide through your fingers like psalm, you can wonder what the payoff of a life of faith is. Then you can look up and see others who not only do not keep the spiritual path as central but in fact openly get ahead through trampling others under foot, through oppressing and ripping off those in their way, outwardly seeming to thrive. It is hard not to throw up my hands in those moments and say “why God?” or “Really? You have to be kidding me?” I don’t think there has been a person of faith who has not gone through such a period, where they look up from their commitment to the journey of transformation, of service, and wondered if it was an empty game or a cruel joke.
The Psalmist reminds us that, no, things are not as they appear. The spiritual journey is about lasting transformation. It is about the big picture thinking and what truly lasts. Living life disconnected from what matters – connection with others, the deep meaning that spirituality and ethics help produce, the serenity found in discovering something greater than one’s self – is living life that at center is empty. I think about that life as like the seeming financial success right before the economic bubble burst at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. Many people & businesses had made lots of money through shady deals, through suspect practices like sub-prime mortgages, through claiming they or other had assets they didn’t. It looks like success and for a short period of time, some people made lots of money. Then, as any house built on sand, the whole thing came crashing down. And so many lives were hurt.
Ultimately that crisis is a metaphor for what the Psalmist is saying. Lasting success is built on what is real. A life that is sustainably happy, content, and thriving grows out of a center of wholeness that can only come through doing the work of growing, seeking self-understanding, a heart of compassion, connection with others, and the deep wholeness the spiritual path makes possible.
This is more than religion. For some, church attendance, reciting doctrines and creeds, and going through motions of prayer can be not embarking on the journey of self-discovery and cultivating compassion which is the spiritual path but instead a protection from it. “I don’t need to explore my soul, for I came down to the altar and said the sinner’s prayer. I don’t need to hear the stories of people different than me and have my heart shaped toward compassion, for I know my basic instructions before leaving earth”. Religion can be a starting ramp and guiding map for the spiritual journey but it also can be just as vapid, just as empty as the life critiqued by the Psalmist here if it is used as a buffer against the call to true life. Also, I find many people who do not ascribe to religion, including those who might call themselves agnostic and atheist, who I believe in their own way embark on this journey to spirituality because they are truly honestly seeking what is true, as well as the deep inner wholeness that journey makes possible.
This building of a life that works long term to me also connects with two other gems this Psalm gives us – the reminder that we need to be patient as well as the statement that if we truly trust God, God will give us the desires of our heart.
When I first read that last phrase it seemed to make no sense to me. After all the first section of the Psalm recognizes that we in fact don’t get what we want every time, and sit heart-broken to see individuals who choose paths of injustice who get it instead. Then I read the stunning proverb of St. Augustine’s – “Love God, and do what you want”. Augustine meant, of course, if you truly are loving God with your whole heart, in that moment what you want will be love for others, care for God’s other, those things that better God’s world. When truly full of the love God gives, your heart will long for those things God loves – those things that work toward the healing of God’s world.
Becoming ones whose hearts naturally are overflowing with this love, this compassion, this longing for healing of all creation that flows from a place of wholeness coming from our own healing, is the point of the spiritual journey. And so if we truly embark on it we can know we will get the desires it places in our heart. For we can know that this process brings lasting results in us, in others. We can know that in the end, God will work reconciliation of all things.
Yet what we find ourselves drawn to in such a journey ultimately take time. One does not become a person of healing and compassion over night. One does not become ready to lead or serve or parent or befriend in the way that God has created us to all at one. It takes commitment to this spiritual journey.
So learning to patient with God is really learning to be patient with yourself and with others.
To me, this morning, this gives me – a man often too impatient – hope and encouragement. I will pick up my stakes, lift up my tents, and continue on my journey one plodding step at a time, knowing the destination is beyond my imagining. I hope you do the same!