In the Desert and the Promised Land
August 2, 2015
Over the past few weeks we’ve been spending our time in worship together with the psalms. The psalms are the prayers and poetry of the ancient people of God, and they run the gamut from poems of praise and gratitude to gut-wrenching laments and pleas for help. But one common thread that runs through the poems and prayers – is the assurance that no matter what happens -God is present, God is good, and God is faithful.
We can trust God to hold our lives.
Part of what makes the psalms such a meaningful, beautiful part of our scriptural heritage is that they connect us so directly – so viscerally – with our ancestors in the faith.
When I was leaving for seminary, a mentor of mine gave me a book of the psalms that I kept by my bed throughout my years in school. At the times when I couldn’t find words to put to my feelings – or the times when my prayer life was dry and I couldn’t figure out anything to say to God –I would turn to those psalms – and they never failed me. The words of the dear ancient poets became like this giant pool of faith that I could draw from.
The psalms are indeed one of the great gifts among many gifts that the scriptures offer us. Thomas Merton, the great poet, mystic, social activist, and Trappist monk, said that the psalms “will, above all, tell us not merely what we ought to be but the unbelievable thing that we already are… we are at the same time in the desert and in the Promised Land. The psalms are our Bread of Heaven in the wilderness of our Exodus.”
We are at the same time in the desert and in the Promised Land.
That, I believe, is where today’s psalm – Psalm 46 – finds us.
These are anxious times. We get the feeling that the world is not a safe place. This week, we were shocked and heartbroken once again by a senseless act of gun violence – this time, very close to home. A family was attacked on the side of the road in Pryor after they went out of their way to offer assistance a stranded motorist – killed by the person they had stopped to help.
This while we are still processing a shooting in a movie theater in Louisiana last week, and in Chattanooga the week before. Offices, movie theaters, schools, churches – places that should be safe, but no longer feel that way.
These are anxious times.
The gap continues to grow between the wealthiest and the poorest people in our society. College tuition and student loan practices mean that young people are saddled with insane amounts of debt the day they graduate from college – and even then their degrees offer no guarantee of the careers they have prepared for.
Talk with the young adults in your life about this – I can tell you, it is a nearly universal situation and it keeps them up at night.
These are anxious times.
I read the Billings Gazette and my other news online – and often when I do that, I will do the one thing that really sane, like really spiritually centered people tell you that you should never ever do – I read the comments section at the bottom of the story –or on Facebook.
I do it.
I can’t help it –we are all works in progress.
But seriously, as your spiritual leader – I would not recommend it. Not if you want to feel particularly good about humanity, anyway. Because honestly to read the comments section is to see people say some of the meanest, nastiest things possible to each other and about each other. And mostly I am immediately sorry that I scrolled to the bottom of the page to read the ways that people are ripping each other apart from the safety of their anonymous posts. But when I read them, I also see anxious people, people who feel powerless, people who are afraid- and all of that turns into scapegoating and blatant racism and sexism and homophobia.
It turns into bullying and rants about “taking this back from these people” and “they’ll get what they deserve.”
We see it on the comments section of our social media, in the op-ed pages of our newspapers, and even from the mouths of those who seek to be leaders of our country – some of who’s rhetoric has gotten so outrageous that the Daily Show’s
Jon Stewart recently remarked that “America’s ID is running for president.”
The violence and the anxiety and the responses and the noise can get so loud – so overwhelming that we would do well to pay attention when the psalmist says to us –
“Be still and know that I am God!”
take a pause
take a moment
take a breath.
And know that I am God.
Do not mistake those words for an invitation to withdraw from the world and its noise and its pain. As the Hebrew Bible scholar John Goldingay writes, “nowhere do the psalms have an ideal of silence… their assumption is that one finds God not in silence but in noise.”
Our ancient companion –who certainly knew a thing or two about the anxieties and pains of the world – was not suggesting that we retreat inward and pretend that the rest of the world – with its wicked, wicked ways has nothing to offer us or has nothing to do with us or simply doesn’t exist.
The psalmist is offering a challenge to those who would allow God’s grace to be overrun by fear and anger and anxiety.
Be still and know that I AM GOD.
Not the violence or the anger or the fear.
Not the power structures that tell you to hold on like hell to whatever you have lest it fall into “less deserving” hands.
Not the rancor and rage.
Not the certainty and bullying.
Not the racism or the sexism or the homophobia.
GOD is God.
take a pause
take a moment
take a breath
that God is God.
There is a place in the city of Los Angeles – a cathedral called Our Lady of Angels. It’s the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles – a really impressive modern building. Inside the building– in a long hallway that leads into the worship space, the walls are lined with these huge handmade tapestries representing the communion of saints – all of the people who have ever been a part of the body of Christ.
At the front of the worship space there is a large communion table – the Lord’s Table. And behind the table is a huge tapestry with the image of a city map of Los Angeles inscribed with the words from Revelation 21:3
“See God’s dwelling is among mortals. God will dwell with them. They will be God’s people. And God will be with them.”
Los Angeles is a place – like many places – that has had and continues to have its share of violence and noise and turmoil. But in the midst of all that is this cathedral and in this cathedral is this table and this map – proclaiming that God’s dwelling place is right there – in the midst of the violence and the noise and the turmoil. That in a world where those things are inescapable,
GOD is GOD.
We are at the same time in the desert and in the Promised Land.
Have you ever flown across the country or to a different country and ended up in a time zone several time zones away from the place where you started? You know that feeling when your expectations of time and place are a little bit off – so everyone else is thinking about going to bed and you’re thinking about getting lunch?
We inhabit the desert but we are on Promised Land time.
Our hearts, our spirits, our minds, our souls – experience things in a different way. We look at the world, its anxiety, its violence, its pain –and we choose not to run from it – not to make excuses for it – not to decide who’s to blame for it. Instead we choose to allow it to inhabit our prayers.
I got a phone call this week from a friend of mine who told me she called because she was in need of some spiritual guidance.
Earlier this summer she was in her car in her town’s library parking lot when a truck backed up and hit her car and drove away. She says that the hit was really light and it could be that the person didn’t realize that he’d hit her, but still it did some damage to her car. Using her level head and ninja-like reflexes, she got the truck’s license plate and the driver was tracked down. He denied hitting her and it went to the insurance companies, where he continues to deny that it happened.
So here’s where she called me.
If she wants him to pay for the damages to her car, she’s going to have to take him to small claims court. On the other hand, her insurance company has already determined it wasn’t her fault so she could just pay her deductible and get the car fixed. Some people close to her want her to take him to court. She was not so sure.
We talked for a while – she said she wanted her faith to inform her decision. She said, “I really want to do the most Christ-like thing here.” She talked about how the deductible wasn’t really that much in the scheme of things. She said, “I keep thinking – what would I want someone to do if the shoe was on the other foot.” At the same time, she was worried about seeming naïve or like she was rolling over and letting someone take advantage of her.
After going around and around, we still hadn’t really resolved the situation, but as we were ending the call I said – “Well, since you called me – your pastor friend – I would just say maybe pray about it.” She said – “That’s what I’m doing – I’m praying while I talk to the insurance company. I’m praying while I called you. I’m praying and praying and praying.”
I don’t know what she’s going to decide to do. But this struggle she’s having – these questions she’s prayerfully asking – What is the most Christ-like thing to do? What would I want someone to do for me?
These are the questions that come from living in the desert and the Promised Land – engaging in the world’s confusion and frustration and heartbreak, while living into God’s kingdom promises.
In the desert and Promised Land, the people around us – even and perhaps most especially those who seem neediest and most vulnerable or angriest and most afraid – cannot be regarded as an inconvenience or a threat or a sideshow - - they are sisters and brothers, tied to us by God’s grace.
We can’t disengage from them and so we pray for them – and when we can, we pray with them. We show them mercy. We offer them grace. We allow our lives and our relationships to be testaments to our faith that God’s love is both more important and more powerful that whatever would pit us against each other.
That is our calling – the calling our dear psalmist reminds us of – to trust in God’s faithfulness and to pray for God’s people. And that, my friends, takes guts. No doubt about it. That is a serious calling. It’s a subversive calling – a calling that upends and realigns everything – changes everything about who we are and how we see the world.
The poet and scholar Walter Bruggemann writes, “When we go to the places where we are called by God – sometimes gladly, sometimes reluctantly – we are drawn into the newness of God’s future. Our lives are resituated in a chorus of possibilities. We have glimpses of Easter newness. As we trust ourselves to that glimpse, we find gifts of newness all around… We become other than we were, carriers of hope that will not quit, refusing any longer the closed reality of the status quo.”
That’s what I want for my life.
What I want for your lives – for this place.
That we might be an oasis of God’s grace and love in the midst of the desert where the Spirit of God spills out and offers newness and hope to those who are tired of wandering.
Come, Spirit, come.
Our hearts control – our spirits long to be made whole.
Let inward love guide every deed.
By this we worship and are freed.