Friday, July 28, 2017

The Path of Life (Psalm 16)

The 16th Psalm revolves around the question of trust.  In the end, where do we place our trust?  While the word “trust” does not appear in the actual Psalm, the idea of trust permeates the text. The psalmist celebrates trust, placing his life and wellbeing in the hands of God.  No matter what happens, no matter what may befall, the psalmist is content to seek his life in God’s care.  He calls out:  “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you”. The psalmist has cast his lot with God, and nothing shall shake him from this resolve.

At this point, I know there are those who read this and harbor a thought or two along the vein of “Yeah, right”.  And that person might be in the majority.  Trust can be a tall order in our American culture.  Gallup opinion polls regularly chart the decline of public trust, especially among persons considered historically trustworthy.  Trust in institutions, authority and high profile individuals have eroded greatly.

When it comes to trust, the conventional wisdom of our culture runs along these lines:  Trust can be broken as soon as it is said to be given.  Trust can be offered only to find it left in tatters.  If you are too free with your trust, you might run into trouble of all sorts.   The best word on trust appears to be this observation:  “Trust:  It’s the hardest to earn; it’s the easiest to lose.”

So what should we make of this psalm with its enthusiastic word about trust in God?  Is it the word of some young writer, composing a song about life, though the psalmist is somebody still wet behind the years?  Does the psalm tether to a reality that you believe possible?

Let me tell you about one young person of faith who taught me a bit about trust. I met him only briefly, yet he left such an impression. He was a young Baptist minister who pastored a very unique congregation. From Liberia, the pastor was part of a temporary refugee camp.  Political upheaval caused this pastor and hundreds of others to flee their country.

The pastor came to the Baptist World Alliance meeting being held that year in Ghana.  He was invited to speak, thought it took much difficulty to procure a “day pass” so the pastor could attend. This refugee camp was fraught with anxiety. Politically, the UN and Ghana's government kept wrangling over how long the refugee camp could stay open. The refugee camp had very little clean drinking water, let alone enough water to meet basic hygiene and sanitation standards.   The pastor shared that among his fellow refugees, they had little knowledge of what would happen once the camps were closed. To many in the camp, returning to their home country itself was not of high attraction.

Curiously, the refugee camp pastor exuded a remarkable level of calm and grace.  He told stories of the church he planted in the midst of the refugee camp, creating a place for the people to gather to sing, to pray, and to support one another.  The gathering would scatter in a few weeks or months when the UN shut the camp down, yet something remarkable happened as the people gathered in the mud or the dust, even as they worried about their political future, or the lack of a decent meal.  The worship at this church for refugees offered them a connection beyond any political map or governmental power.  It may not have seemed the most tangible some days, yet they had called upon God, upon whom they placed their trust.

That day I heard a word about “trust” come to life.

Rather appropriately, I note that the 16th Psalm’s placement in the collection of psalms itself appears to be a little editorial license at work.  The 13th psalm is one of complaint.  The next psalm softens in tone a bit.  By the time the 16th psalm appears, the psalms have moved from edginess to reverence.  We read these psalms one after the other and find something of our own life story in this movement from complaint to confidence.

Even when we claim to be ardent in our love of God and take pride that we keep the faith, we find ourselves sometimes rattled by life circumstances going well beyond our control or go through times when there’s not much hope in sight.  On such days, we find ourselves closer to the psalms of complaint or lament rather than psalms centering on the praise of God or trust in God.  Yet, the Psalter reminds us that there is a word to the otherwise.  You can find lament and pain, suffering and weariness in this life, yet there is also the grace notes of faith, love, and hope to be found as well.

I wonder if this psalm reflects life so well that its celebration of deep trust in God while still living in the world that this psalm is better understood as the word given by an old woman or man to the rest of us young whippersnappers. There is a certain world-weary (or better said, world-wise) tone that I hear in the text.  The psalm arises from a voice wise to the ups and downs of human life, knowing the sorrow, the frustration and the yearning that things played out differently.  The psalmist’s rather radical assertion that God alone is the source of one’s identity is a less than subtle word of challenge to anyone who says otherwise.

The preacher William Sloane Coffin, Jr. spent the last few years of his life knowing that his health was declining, yet he outlived his doctor’s prognoses enough that it became a little joke that he kept having “one last time” visits more than once with his friends. 

Speaking of death and the end of life, the old preacher observed that he found his last years bringing a change to his attitude and outlook.  He proclaimed this good word:

Although still outraged by callous behavior, particularly in high places, I feel more often serene, grateful for God’s gift of life.  For the compassions that fail not, I find myself saying daily to my loving Maker, “I can no other answer make than thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.

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