This is the message I preached on Sunday, July 8, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC, for our Homecoming Service. 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.
1Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD; praise the name of the LORD. 2Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time on and forevermore. 3From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised. 4The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens. 5Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, 6who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? 7He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, 8to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. 9He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the LORD!
Would you pray with us?
May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our hearts and ears of our minds so we might see and hear what word God has for us in these words of Scripture. Amen.
Many of us have gone through significant losses, changes, and griefs. And our church too has gone through loss, haven’t we? The next three Sundays we will be exploring a message from Scripture each Sunday which speaks to our experience of grief. Next Sunday, July 15th, we also will have Ann Ritter from UNC hospice sharing some about grief and recovery briefly at our 10 AM service, with a class on grief and recovery in our fellowship hall at our 9 am Sunday school hour.
Our Scripture today and the Scriptures we will read the next few Sundays come from the Psalms. The book of Psalms is included in our Bible as a collection of model prayers, which can help us find words to pray when our emotions run so deep words are otherwise hard to come by. When we turn to the Psalms, we can find that we are not alone in our sorrow and loss, anger and sadness, numbness and confusion, even our joy and gratitude. When we pray the Psalms, we pray together with others who have also felt all these same emotions. In the Gospels Jesus also prayed the Psalms. So, when we turn to them to express our deep joy or deep grief and sorrow, we can remember that we are not alone. Not only do those who prayed them before us stand with us, but so does Jesus. In Jesus we have a mediator with God who was tested and tried just as we are, yet without sin. Jesus has felt and understands whatever you are going through. And in Jesus, God stands with us, ready and willing to walk the full journey with us.
Because of this, of all the books of the Bible, the Psalms most clearly reflect our journeys from loss and grief to recovery and rebuilding. United Church of Christ Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann says the prayers in the Psalms generally fall into 3 categories: 1) prayers from points of orientation, when those praying them are at a point where they were untroubled by trials and their faith innocent and unshaken; 2) prayers from moments of disorientation, when it is harder to understand where God is working, so those who pray them feel shaken and unsteady, and their normal easy answers sound hollow to their ears; and 3) prayers of reorientation, from times after loss when they begin, with God’s help, to rebuild their lives and faith. Each week during our series on grief and recovery we will look at one of these types of prayer, asking what it teaches us about the grief journey.
This movement of prayer in the Psalms mirrors almost word for word our journey of grief, loss, and rebuilding after, doesn’t it? Like the Psalms do, we often begin our grief journeys in times when things make sense: we have someone we love by our side, a job we enjoy we can show up at everyday, a community that makes sense to us, our physical health. In such moments we have no question about it: God is on the throne, in God’s good heaven and all seems right in our world. Then we feel the rug pulled out from underneath us through our experience of loss – whether through losing someone we love through death, through experiencing illness or some disabling condition, through going through a breaking up of a partnership or marriage, through us losing a job, through having to support someone we love through such a time, or through changes that bring painful loss in our community, church, neighborhood, and family. Often it is hard to understand why these things happen. We question. We search. We wonder. Our normal answers we have turned to for comfort in the past are no comfort any longer. They echo hollow in our ears. We wonder where God is, how God can be in charge if such hard things have happened. For a long time we may not know which way is up or down. Then, as we slowly begin to walk again, sometimes limping at first, through our journey of grief, bit by bit we find our way again and, with the help of God and of others, begin the painful work of rebuilding our lives again after our loss.
Our reading today, Psalm 113, is a clear example of prayers of orientation. It is a prayer First spoken from a time of grace before the kind of losses that might lead you to feel life unraveling & certainty becoming shaken have happened.
In Psalm 113, the one who prays knows and has no difficulty seeing that God is enthroned securely in God’s good heaven, looking down upon all of us like one might see the landscape for miles and miles around from a mountaintop, so they know God can look out and see all the affairs of our life. There is not an area of our lives that they feel God doesn’t see or intervene in to bring blessing or overturn injustice. Unlike some psalms of orientation which suggest if we succeed, it is always because we’ve followed God well, and if we suffer we must have sinned, Psalm 113 clearly recognizes that suffering like poverty or childlessness happen and are not God’s judgment on you for some failing of your own, but rather struggles all of us can face that may be no one’s fault. Yet it’s clear the one praying is not struggling now. Psalm 113 tells us these are struggles from which God can and does set people free. Here God is the one who always stoops down, leaning down from God’s height in heaven high above where God could choose to go untouched by our struggles to right each wrong. God chooses instead to be touched by our pain and dive down into our less than perfect lives, rolling up God’s sleeves to tirelessly work to make all things right again when they have gone wrong. God is the one who lifts the poor out of their poverty each time, and again and again puts the childless into families, helping them build home and family where none existed. God will not stop until every wrong is righted. The Psalmist knows we can trust injustice will not stand but for a moment, and believes God will set all things right if we just reach out to God. Every injustice will be overturned and all set right if we just reach out and take God’s hand, this Psalmist says.
Psalm 113 reflects an easy, childlike faith that God is in control of every aspect of our lives, with nothing falling through the cracks. Its words are ones we want to be able to say Amen to, but which it might be hard to say Amen to in our darkest moments. Its words remind me of true-isms we often say in church in the face of life’s problems: Don’t worry about the future, because God is already there. God won’t put any more on you than you can bear. Trust God’s plan, because nothing happens God didn’t plan. God did this for a reason. Have you ever heard these said to you when you were suffering? If so I bet you can admit though sometimes they helped, there other times that they were very hard to say Amen to, right?
Such sayings – like Psalm 113 — make the most sense when we ourselves are not struggling with situations that seem to fly in the face of their message. When we feel clear which is the right path to take, with no grey areas, when our family is faring well and our job is steady, then it is easy to believe God is sitting on God’s throne in heaven, seeing everything, keeping everything well-ordered. When life does not feel it is unraveling around us, these prayers are easy to say. It is easy then to believe God has our future under control, that God won’t put more on us than we can bear, and that everything that happens is part of God’s plan.
As we will talk more about next week, our experience of loss, trauma, and grief can shake up our hold on these simple comforting beliefs. It can unravel the easy answers we have been taught over the years. Suddenly we might be able to look at our lives and say “I’ve been following God’s Word as best I can all these years, but I don’t see God bringing any deliverance despite my prayers, nor see how God can be seeing this from heaven and still letting it happen.” Elsewhere in the Bible, we find the righteous man Job said as such, when his life fell apart around him and his deeply spiritual friends quoted the same sort of true-isms we often say in the church and are often quoted in psalms or prayers of orientation. Deep down Job knew what our experiences of grief and loss teach us: that ultimately such words, on their own, leave out a big part out of our picture of God’s plan. During his time of suffering, trauma, and loss, Job cried out to God in ways that made it clear it was hard for him to see God as sitting on God’s throne, seeing every part of his life, righting every wrong as Psalm 113 described. He cried out because of that to God and all who would listen, even though his friends worried his crying out meant he was losing his faith. Yet by the end of the book of Job, we find God answers Job, but not in the way Job or anyone else would have expected. And God lets us know in God’s answer to Job that Job was not in the wrong, showing us when we find these easy answers from prayers and Psalms of orientation, from churchy trueisms, sounding hollow when we are in our pain, that does not mean we have lost our faith or lost our way. Everyone can go through such dark nights of the soul.
When we go through loss, trauma, and grief, we like Job can have a hard time seeing God as still on the throne, and our lives as taken care of by God in the way Psalm 113 describes. Even though we might pray words like Psalm 113’s which proclaim that God reverses the situations of the poor and oppressed, we can begin to wonder how long we will continue to see injustice, have unanswered prayers, or wade through what feels like a deep and abiding darkness. If that is where you are, know you are in good company. It is not the final word nor does it mean you necessarily are losing your faith though it may feel like it.
With that backdrop, is there anything we can we gain from reflecting on these prayers of orientation, prayed originally from a state of innocence and grace, that can help us in those dark times when their words sound hollow? I think there are.
First, such prayers remind us of the original blessing we have which predates our loss and cannot be taken from us, no matter how painful the experience we face. Theologian Matthew Fox says that often as Christians we are too focused on original sin, which is the many different ways we become quickly broken by life from the start, tending us toward this or that sin, damaging us deeply before our choice or our say. In over-emphasizing our brokenness and original sin, Fox says, we Christians often fail to recognize we also begin life under an original blessing: When God made all life, what did God say about it? God called it good, very good! This Good, very good, applies not just to all creation but also to you and me, to each and every one of us. Scripture says every person whom God made is made in the image of God and yes that includes even you and me. The Psalms tell us in Psalm 139 that we can praise God because we are each fearfully and wonderfully made.
What a promise! However we become hurt or broken in our lives, however we might lose our way, sin, or fail, this original blessing cannot be broken. These words remain true of us. We each remain ones full of potential and hope, ones who can reflect God’s image in a way no-one else can. We each continue to be worthy and of worth in God’s eyes.
Our experience of grief and loss can leave us, on the other hand, feeling washed up, worthless, and no good. We can feel broken beyond repair. Yet what we have gone through, however painful, does not change who we are: children of God who in Christ are called God’s very own, ones whom God loves, and ones in whom God delights who also deserve delight ourselves. This is who God says you and I are and nothing, absolutely nothing, can change that. This original blessing rests on us and it that which prayers like Psalm 113 remind us of.
Such prayers also can act as a lifeline in the midst of difficult times. I see this time and time again in my work as a chaplain. People will say to me, “chaplain, I do not see where God is here in this situation. Chaplain , I don’t understand how God can allow this, and oh the pain I face! Yet I won’t give up. I know whom I have believed. Yet,” they say, “I will trust this is in God’s hands, though it take all I have to do so. I will believe God can work good for me and others out of my pain. I know God will make a way when there seems to be no way.” These folks who are suffering cling to the reality that is truer than the true-ism but which these trueisms point to. Such words become a seed through which their future of a restored faith and a rebuilt life can grow, that future which can lay ahead for them and us, sprouting up on the other side of pain and loss
With July 4th having come right behind us this past week, there is an example of this in our nation’s history. When the founding fathers wrote all men were were created equal by God, born with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were those words automatically treated as true for all people? No, in many ways these words were words of orientation too. Those words in fact seemed originally to only to apply to a select few people whose lives were comfortable
and made sense. And yet they included in them the seed of something better, an original blessing which made something better possible through what it pointed to. Many of the Congregationalist-Christians who helped start many of the churches which later became our United Church of Christ , including our own Hanks Chapel, pointed out, that as a nation we were acting like these words weren’t really true — that instead some men are more equal than others – particularly white men with land. They said we were acting like they alone were deserving of freedom — while women and people of color could be mistreated: with Native Americans’ land being stolen and handed over the white settlers, and black folks from Africa being sold as slaves. These Congregationalist Christians pointed back to our founding fathers’ words as a rallying cry, a call to live out the full promise of our country – let us truly treat all equal, all as having inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That rallying cry led our Congregationalist-Christian forefathers and mothers of faith to fight for the rights of Native Americans, for the end of slavery and fair treatment for all, and eventually even for the rights of women to vote. It is their a cry which Dr. Martin Luther King and others made their own when they lifted up cries for justice and freedom for people of color in the Civil Rights movement. In words reminiscent of Psalm 113, Dr. King both told the nation that the check of this promise included in the words “all are created equal” was past due for people of color, women, and many others and also that it needed to be fulfilled because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. In other words, King and others trusted we would ultimately learn to treat all people as equal because the God of Psalm 113 would lift up the oppressed, marginalized, and cast aside to stand on equal footing. Both those words penned by our forefathers and the words of Psalm 113 included the seed of the promise of freedom for all, pointing to a blessing God wanted to offer that could not be over-ruled by those who tried to bend it to keep some people from sharing in the full blessings of freedom.
Just as these words of our founding fathers included a seed from which freedom for all could grow, so these prayers from before our loss, from places of innocence and a state of grace, are important because these include the seeds from which our rebuilding or recovery may come after loss. Just as “all men are created equal” has a deeper richer and meaning in our country following our fight for Civil Rights, so on the other side of grief, the words of prayers like Psalm 113 take on new and richer meaning. Again and again through the experience of grief and recovery we may return to those promises that God will work out all things for our good, bring blessing out of heartache, walk with us on our journeys which previously sounded hollow and begin to see ways they are still true now, if not in the way we would originally have expected. Though we may not be able see any truth in these words in this moment in our grief journey, we might see truth in them further on in our grief journey as we look back on it, more healed and steadied.
In closing, let me share the words of Henri Nouwen from his book Here and Now: Life in the Spirit, which express the value of these kinds of prayers— “My friend’s joy is contagious. The more I am with him, the more I can catch glimpses of the sun shining through the clouds. Yes, I know there is a sun, even though the skies are covered with the clouds. While my friend always spoke about the sun, I kept speaking about the clouds, until one day I realized that it was the sun that allowed me to see the clouds. Those who keep speaking about the sun while walking under a cloudy sky are messengers of hope, the true saints of our day”.
The original blessing pointed to by such prayers from our state of grace before our loss, prayers like Psalm 113, are like this sun which keeps shining through the dark clouds of our pain. Though they may be hard to glimpse now, their words echoing hollow in this moment, the blessing they point to continues to shine and cannot be eclipsed by any pain and darkness. In time we will see and discover it again, even if it is hard to imagine in this moment.
May God open our eyes, during times of clouds and darkness, to get glimpses afresh of the sun of God’s original blessing of us and ongoing presence with us that shine out through the clouds and darkness that surround us!
Amen & Amen.