This is the message I preached on Sunday, July 22, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.
1 I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
2 He drew me up from the desolate pit,[a]
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.
4 Happy are those who make
the Lord their trust,
who do not turn to the proud,
to those who go astray after false gods.
5 You have multiplied, O Lord my God,
your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
none can compare with you.
Were I to proclaim and tell of them,
they would be more than can be counted.
6 Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.[b]
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required.
7 Then I said, “Here I am;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me.[c]
8 I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”
9 I have told the glad news of deliverance
in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips,
as you know, O Lord.
10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
from the great congregation.
11 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.
Still-speaking God, open the eyes of our mind and ears of our heart, that we might see and know what words you have for us in these words of Scripture. Amen.
The last two weeks we have been exploring God’s message to us in times of grief, loss, and trauma as we journey together to heal and rebuild our lives and communities after loss. We’ve focused on the message of the Psalms, which include model prayers that walk through the whole journey of loss and recovery. Our first week we looked at a psalm or prayer of orientation written from a point where the Psalmist was in a state of grace before suffering and loss, and we discussed the lessons such prayers teach us when we are going through loss ourselves, losses that make their easy optimism ring hollow. Last week we looked at a psalm or prayer of disorientation, written from a point in which the Psalmist felt life had become unravelled and they were drowning in their overwhelming experience of grief. We explored what that prayer teaches us about our times when we, too, are overwhelmed by the experience of grief and loss.
This week we turn to Psalm 40, a prayer or psalm of reorientation, written from a point when the person praying has finally begun to find their footing and embrace life again after loss. While we found last week that the experience of grief and loss can feel like sinking into deep waters in which we are drowning, here we see what follows when you begin to lift out of this into a time reorientation, when you can rebuild after grief and loss.
- What does this Psalm teach us about the process and perils of rebuilding life again after loss? (allow discussion)
First, I want you to notice that, just as the experience of grief and loss was overwhelming in Psalm 69, so to the Psalmist, the experience of embracing life again can also be overwhelming. The Psalmist feels as if they have been lifted out of a sinking pit, which had offered no hope of rescue — a fitting image for how grief and loss can feel. Now, he or she feels exultation and freedom — having been brought by God out of their painful peril to a position Job 36:16 calls a “spacious place where there is no cramping”.
One of my favorite poets, Rumi, pictures what this spacious place without cramping can feel like in his poem, “ A Great Wagon”: “Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.”
Through our experience of grief and loss, we can feel our life seem to narrow, to shrink, feeling powerless over our lives. Then as we make our first stumbling steps to embrace life after our loss, we can feel ourselves begin to open up again. We can start to see all kinds of opportunities and possibilities we would not have expected before. It is like walking into an open field after feeling lost in dark woods that were crowded with trees and thickets. This too can be overwhelming, for often when life opens up into this open space, this field, it does so in surprising ways, where our old sense of “right” and “wrong” don’t fit, where we have to learn our way again, as for the first time.
In my own life, I experienced this as I began to embrace life after being widowed. My identity had been as husband, first in terms of a partner to my late wife and then in terms of her caregiver. After she passed, I felt I lost a part of who I was. I was not a husband any longer. As I began to embrace life again, it was an adjustment to face what it meant to live life fully now as a single person, without her there, neither as my partner in life nor the sick person I cared for. Even when I began to be able to feel happy again after that sadness , sometimes it threw me off guard. I even felt guilty that I was having these moments of joy without her in my life.
- What have been people’s experience of this? What surprises lay in your own path of rebuilding after loss for them?
The Psalmist also teaches us that, just as the journey through grief is one God does not intend us to do alone, neither is the journey of rebuilding after loss. We still need to reach out to God and others; and those of us who have supported others through their initial time of loss and grief still need to be available as a support to them through their times of rebuilding, not assuming they’ve arrived.
The fact this Psalm is a prayer means, by definition, the one praying it is reaching out to God. Like the others Psalms we have read, it is recorded in our Bible and this alone shows its words were not just prayed alone by the Psalmist in their own home, but prayed with others who heard him or her and wrote down their words. That the Psalm mentions them sharing their story of deliverance with “the congregation” shows even talking with others who support you about your journey to recovery is so important.
It is easy to assume in our success-oriented society which tells us to “just man up, just move on, just get over it”, that the need to lean on God and others only comes when we are deeply hurting, and ends as soon as we begin to rebuild our lives after grief. But even as our life begins to open up, it can still be hard to know which way is up or down, as we learn who we are on the other side of loss. Whatever your loss, do not be surprised if you find, though you eventually begin to have more happy days than sad, you take a while to fully embrace the new identity you have after loss, and feel a little flummoxed or overwhelmed by the options that lie in front of you — and so need support. It is important to still be willing to reach out to God, friends, others, and realize it is ok for even these positive experiences that come as you embrace life again after loss to be a bit overwhelming.
Because of this, when you are supporting someone else through their grief journey you need to realize that even as they begin to open to life, they still need others to support them. Even the new good things they experience on this side of their journey can be overwhelming, and even the steps forward embracing new life can have an element of uncertainty which your friendship and support can help make easier for them.
The Psalmist shows us that embracing life again after loss can brings a changed or renewed vision of life. We see this when the Psalmist talks about rejecting the false promises of idols or false gods and proud people who promise more than they can deliver. This experience of loss can lead us to reconsider what really matters and leads to a deep, rewarding meaningful life. In the face of sickness, death, divorce, loss of a job, breaking up of a family or a church, God can use these experiences to help you see life more clearly.
In a book on this process of loss and renewal called Falling Upward, Christian writer Richard Rohr puts it well: ““Sooner or later, … some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, your strong willpower. Spiritually speaking, you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own private resources. At that point you will stumble over a necessary stumbling stone, as Isaiah calls it; or to state it in other language here, you will and you must ‘lose’ at something. This is the only way that …God… can get you to change, let go of your egocentric preoccupations, and go on the further and larger journey. I wish I could say this was not true, but it is darn near absolute…
“There is no practical or compelling reason to leave one’s present comfort zone in life. Why should you or would you? Frankly, none of us do unless and until we have to. . .
“Any attempt to engineer or plan your own enlightenment is doomed to failure because it will be ego driven. You will see only what you have already decided to look for, and you cannot see what you are not ready or told to look for. So failure and humiliation force you to look where you never would otherwise. … ‘God comes to you disguised as your life,’…
“So we must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say… We must actually be out of the driver’s seat for awhile, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide. It is the necessary pattern. This kind of falling is what I mean by necessary suffering, … In the spiritual world, we do not really find something until we first lose it, ignore it, miss it, long for it, choose it, and personally find it again — but on a new level”.
Loss, failure, and grief then can open you up to new ways of looking at and living into your own life.
These new values and way of looking at life that come when we truly engage the work of grief can lead you to start to see yourself and what has happened to you as somehow fitting into how God is working in your world in a way you can better accept it and see where you fit into the rhythm of life again. This is why the Psalmist says God has opened their ear, and helped them see themselves in God’s scroll. The opening of the ear is the image of wax being flushed out of our ear so we can hear better. Pain has a way of clearing away the distractions if we let it, helping us to more fully connect with what God is saying to you through your life. Finding ourselves in God’s scroll is a symbolic way in the Psalms of talking about finding ourselves in God’s plan or purpose. Our embracing life again comes in part through coming to see ways what has happened, what it is doing in our lives, and we ourselves are somehow a part of how God working out God’s plan in our lives, so we can trust God and life again. This doesn’t mean you necessarily have to believe that what happened was good or even that God planned or caused it, but it means learning to trust again the promise of Romans 8 that God is working all things out — even what you have been grieving– for your good and the good of others. And though you may not ever be able to say why your loss happened, you may begin to see ways it taught you lessons, ways it opened you to new values, opened you to new people, or opened you to new opportunities you never would have before.
This process often leads people to make life changes, which have at their center not simply holding onto what has been but embracing life as it is present right in front of you. This is part of why the Psalmist says God does not want or desire sacrifices. Sacrifices and religious rituals can easily become the kind of bargaining that, though natural in times of grief, can long term hold life back. If you will just do this for me, God, I will change my life in some way– I will give up this or embrace that. Such bargaining is usually aimed at halting or turning back the clock, ways of dealing with grief that can leave us stuck if it becomes habitual. Ultimately as we heal from grief, we make changes aimed at living out the new values our grief journey has taught us, embracing the life that is in front of us, and opening us up to new lifegiving possibilities. As I mentioned last week, some of the choices we make while in the bargaining mindset of grief which can keep us stuck: to travel, to exercise more, to eat more healthy food, to learn a new hobby or take a new class, to get involved in church or spirituality, to start new projects or new relationships, or even to work out problems in relationships or communities with which we’ve connected — can be the very same choices we might make as a way of moving on and embracing life. But now we are doing them to open ourselves up more to our lives: to the joy, challenge, and opportunity of each day, each moment, and each person, in ways that fill us with more joy and life.
The Psalm also makes it clear embracing life again does not mean you do not struggle or hurt anymore. Rather, you are learning how to deal with this hurt, and to integrate what has happened into your own life in a way that helps your move life forward, rather than staying stuck or going backward. This is why the Psalm abruptly turns from gratitude at being freed and having embrace life again to again expressesing again despair, loss, and helplessness. Grief does not ever completely leave, even after you’ve embraced life again. There will still be places you go that always bring a stab of pain. There will always be moments on some days and some days you have in each year that bring up memories that shake you and might bring tears. The Psalmist’s example shows this is normal and not a sign anything is wrong.
I close with words by Jurgen Moltmann: “For a long time I looked for you within myself and crept into the shell of my soul, shielding myself with an armour of inapproachability. But you were outside – outside myself – and enticed me out of the narrowness of my heart into the broad place of love for life. So I came out of myself and found my soul in my senses, and my own self in others. . . When I love you, my God, I want to embrace it all, for I love you with all my senses in the creations of your love. In all the things that encounter me, you are waiting for me.” Amen & Amen.