When the world around us sends us the message “you are finished”, as the Psalmist has received the same message, we can know if no one else believes in us, God does. This assurance that God is with them, God is for them, comes to the Psalmist not out of the blue in some Damascus Road moment. No, it comes out of a life of experiencing God. From their earliest days, the Psalmist has known God – not as some far off Judge or Law-giver, but as a confidant. From those days the Psalmist has known God as One they could trust, turning to like some castle fortress in the storms of life. And through every dip and valley, every storm and trial, God has proven God’s self faithful.
This experience enables the Psalmist to see God there from the start – the One standing with his mother at their birth, caring for this author like a nursemaid or as the Psalmist’s mother does. They also envision this God of life and sustenance as being with them even into their second childhood of old age as their hair greys and they begin the slow journey to whatever follows: an image which had twice the meaning to them it does to us. To us this might be a reminder that in our greying years as memory and health begins to fail, we will not be abandoned. God will be with us, whether in active retirement or in nursing home and hospital bed. We will experience this Presence continuing. But for the author and audience of this first Psalm, greying hair was less common than today, with old age coming more into one’s thirties than one’s 90’s. So this also was a promise: only one very vital, with great resiliency, could live to be the one with greying hair. The Psalmist’s experience teaches her or him that it this Companionship by the Sacred Friend grants great resiliency, exactly the kind of resiliency to life’s struggles which makes it easier not just to thrive in old age, but to reach it. For the psalmist, old age is not something feared as they do not live in the youth-crazed age we do, but it is in fact an opportunity hoped for.
The hope and promise of this Psalm is beautifully pictured in the song “I Was There To Hear Your Borning Cry”, a hymn written from the perspective of God:
On the one hand this psalm and hymn reminds me of the promise I am never alone. I can relate with finding in God a Companion, a faithful friend. My first real experience of spiritual awakening was turning to prayer as a teenager, and discovering in God One I could pour my heart out to, truly being myself, without judgment or fear. I remember being amazed, having been raised in a tradition that emphasized God as Judge and Law-Giver, in experience in prayer a feeling of being seen, loved, and accepted without judgment. That experience has shaped my whole life and my perspective on the spiritual journey.
We can know that whatever we face, whenever we go through it, we are not alone but accompanied by this Sacred One, whom we can speak to from the heart in any moment.
But I also notice that for the Psalmist, as for the hymn writer, this is not something they simply see in their difficult moments. A lifetime of spiritual practice, of turning to God regularly through prayer and meditation, has developed an awareness of God’s presence in their lives. As a chaplain and pastor I am with people so often through crises and trials. I see people turn to God and spirituality to find meaning. Often times there are folks who’ve never turned to Spirit who in trials find God and spirituality. But it is out of struggle, like the labor pains that produce a child.
What I’ve seen though is the amazing experience of those lives have been lived in Spirit. Many of them instinctively turn out toward where the Spirit is at work and present. They are able to do so because of having kept a practice of daily prayer or meditation, or openness, to the Divine Presence as they understand it throughout their lives. This does not mean they do not struggle, but often times it makes it easier to find the paths they need to turn to more quickly.
So this text invites us to discover or continue a daily spiritual journey. It reminds us of its value.
To be honest, there are days though I do daily spiritual practice, it is hard to see. There are times that meditation just seems like going through the motions of the mind, without feeling peace or enlightenment or transcendence. There is times when I pray I am tempted to like the Congregationalist pastor in Stephen King’s book Under the Dome, to call God “Mr. Not-There”, because I feel like I’m talking to the air. But continuing our spiritual practices especially when we are not having those moments of enlightenment, moments of spiritual awakening, a deep sense of God’s presence and a connection with all of life builds in us an awareness of the Sacred that will stay with us. We will know where to turn when it is needed. And what’s more, we will know that those moments in which the world seems silent to our prayers are normal, not a sign of abandonment, but just one part of the spiritual journey. For often even silence can speak to us, if we learn to listen.
It is like any relationship, really. My 12 years of marriage have moments of deep romance, moments of fear and loss, moments of heartache, but also moments that are quite hum-drum, uninteresting. What makes it work as that my dear wife and I keep at it. That keeping at it builds a solid relationship that can last all the ups and downs of life. So with spiritual practice. Continuing to build that awareness of God in your life, of your own self, and of your connection with others & all of life, cultivates a relationship with God that can buoy you and carry you through life’s darkest – and brightest – moments.
And I sure ain’t whistling any Dixie here,
Your progressive redneck preacher,