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Who is your first phone call? Who is the person you immediately think to reach out to when you get bad news or feel upset or have reached the end of your rope? Who gets the SOS text?
There are some steps that we just have to take ourselves. As the choir will sing a bit later, our Lenten journey is one that in a sense we take alone. No one else can live your faith for you or decide what it means for your life. That’s between you and God. So the choir will remind us: “Nobody else can follow for us. We have to follow by ourselves.”
But that doesn’t mean we are completely isolated on that journey. We need other people. We need their guidance, their wisdom, their company, their empathy.
When we look closely at Psalm 91, we discover that it’s kind of conversation – with at least three voices appearing in the psalm.[i]
First, we sense that there’s a person who seems to be facing some challenges. In verse 2 that person is saying to the Lord: “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” We don’t know exactly what has happened, but usually when someone cries out to God as a refuge and fortress, the news isn’t great.
Then there is another voice, the voice of the poet or psalmist, who speaks directly to the one who is crying out to the Lord. That voice offers reassurance that this person will be protected from evil, that there will be angels to bear the person up so that they will not dash their foot against a stone. I imagine this speaker as a close friend of the person who is struggling.
And finally, starting at verse 14, we hear the voice of the Lord, who promises deliverance: “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble.” God promises to be present in the midst of pain and worry and fear. In the words of another psalm, God is a “very present help in times of trouble” (see Psalm 46).
I love how these voices come together in Psalm 91. Conversation as consolation. I hope when each of is feeling the despair creeping in, we’ll talk to someone – to God, to a spouse or partner, to a pastor, to a therapist, to a friend. There will still be steps we have to take on our own, but we can take those steps with voices of love and support whispering in our ears.
We hear a different kind of conversation in today’s gospel. We find Jesus at his most vulnerable – hungry, exhausted, alone. Until the devil shows up and offers some alternatives. The devil keeps trying to get Jesus to ignore that he is human. Do some divine magic tricks, the devil urges. Turn these stones into bread. Or bow down and worship me so I can give you all kinds of power. Choose the easy way.
And did you notice who quotes today’s psalm in the temptation story? It’s the devil. The Evil One quotes this bit of scripture just as he is trying to persuade Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple. The devil tries to get Jesus to give in to despair and desperation, and he uses the words of the psalm to bolster his argument. It’s a good reminder to us that not everyone who quotes scripture has our best interests at heart. And those voices that whisper in our ear and tell us to give up? They are not to be trusted either. Jesus talks back to those voices, tells the devil not to test him. That’s a different kind of conversation – telling the forces of evil to back off because you know they are trying to manipulate you into giving up.
Here’s the reality: Being a person of faith is not a magic formula for avoiding pain. We all understand that this life is a strange combination of joy and heartbreak, which often bump right up against each other. The new grandchild is born right after we hear about an old friend who has died. The fantastic job offer comes through in the same week that a spouse gets a terrible diagnosis. A parent takes a bad fall just as the toddler is learning to walk. The headaches are gone, but the depression is back.
The good things are not rewards. The bad things aren’t punishments. They just are. But because the good things and the bad things come at us without any rhyme or reason, we need to know that we are not alone in the celebrations or the desolation.
I’ve mentioned before what a big fan I am of the television show “This Is Us.” Among many favorite characters, one of my most favorite is Beth. Beth is married to Randall. They are a black couple with three black daughters in an otherwise white extended family. Beth had in her youth aspired to be a professional ballerina. She was admitted to a prestigious dance school, where she was mentored by a demanding, driven teacher. For a while she was his favorite, but then she had some stumbles along the way, and she found herself rejected by her mentor. Other dancers took the spotlight, and she gave up on that path altogether. She felt utterly alone as her dream fell apart.
Fast forward to the present, when we find Beth, all grown up now, recently hired by a well-regarded dance school in Philadelphia. One of her roles is to recruit dancers from under-represented groups, so Beth sets about selecting kids who look like her to come to the school. One of those dancers is Stacey, who struggles at first but blossoms with Beth’s support.
On recital night, with a full audience, including board members and donors, Beth watches with pride from the wings as Stacey dances her heart out. Stacey turns and turns and turns in the way that well-trained ballerinas do with dizzying awe. Then the unthinkable happens. She falls. She lands with a thud, sprawled on the stage as the audience gasps. Beth looks shocked. And then Beth walks out on stage and gets right down on the floor beside the fallen dancer.
Once Beth figures out that Stacey isn’t hurt, she tries to help her get up. Stacey is in tears. “I can’t,” Stacey says. “I’m sorry. I let you down. I let them all down.”
And here’s what Beth says to Stacey: “You know when I was dancing, I fell. It was a different kind of fall, bigger than this. I felt so alone. Stacey, I want you to know that I will sit with you on this stage until everyone in this audience gets bored and tired and leaves one by one. Or you can get up. You can start again. And I’ll be waiting for you right off stage after you take your bow. Either way, know two things: You cannot disappoint me. And I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
I know it’s a professional hazard for pastors to see theology in everything, but I sure saw it in that moment. All of us are Stacey. We try so hard, and yet we still fall down, sometimes because we screw up and sometimes because life just happens that way.
God knows that we will fall. We will be tempted, and we will do things that we know are wrong, and we will feel sure that this is the point at which God will leave us or will stop loving us. But God does not stop loving us. God gets right down there on the floor with us. In the person of Jesus, God knows what it is like to be our most human selves. And God says: “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
When we sing the next hymn, pay close attention to the words. It’s a new hymn but a familiar tune. Savor especially the last verse, which I hear as a kind of prayer on this threshold of Lent:
When we have struggled and searched through the night,
sorting and sifting the wrong from the right,
Savior, surround us with circles of care,
angels of healing, of hope, and of prayer. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
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Join the fun this summer as we experience the ride of a lifetime with God!
Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.
Monday through Thursday, July 16-19, 9:30 am – 12:15 pm
Click here for registration form: