Climbing Out


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Depressed? Discouraged? Grieving? God calls us to grow into resilient creatures of light and love. How on earth are we to do such a radical thing while the world is suffering and bitter? Join Rev. Victor at the table for a Sunday morning of spiritual food — better than brunch!

Sermon Video

This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Psalm 43

Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
against an ungodly people;
from those who are deceitful and unjust
deliver me!
For you are the God in whom I take refuge;
why have you cast me off?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because of the oppression of the enemy?

O send out your light and your truth;
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling.
Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise you with the harp,
O God, my God.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise you,
my help and my God.

 

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Prayer for Illumination (sung)

Send out your light. Lord,
Send your truth
To be my guide.
And them lead me to the place
you reside.[1] Amen.

Psalm 43

Most scholars agree that Psalms 42 and 43 were composed as a set, as one long song (psalm). The timeframe of these songs date from the “synagogue of Persian times”[2] and give voice to Israel’s yearnings after the Babylonian Exile, after the captivity, after the insult, when everything was supposed to be over. As much as it is the story of migration, the Bible is also the story of a long-suffering faith. Like the Psalmist, we carry wounds with us, and we must give our losses voice.

Vindicate, Judge, Establish Justice

Let’s take time to explore some of the layers in the opening of Psalm 43, the Hebrew word, shopteni. Our translation renders it:

  • Vindicate me: Lord, please prove to me that I did the right thing. Clear my name. Lift this burden. It could also be translated:
  • Judge[3] me: Put me on trial, God. Examine me, and tell me what I need to do, who I need to see, how I need to conduct myself so that I might climb out this hole of sadness. The opening of Psalm 43 could a third way.
  • Establish justice[4] for me: God, you know my past—where it went wrong, the unfairness of grief. Restore me, make me whole. Fix me, fix my story. And, the Psalmist says, fix my enemies because they need fixing.

Establish justice for me, judge me, vindicate me…for you are the God in whom I take refuge.

But, The Olives…

One of my trusted advisers, Rev. Terri Echelbarger, says that, in her congregation down in San Mateo, a man tells that he went this week to Trader Joe’s looking for his favorite comfort food: garlic-stuffed olives. He searched the shelves, he asked the workers, only to learn that they no longer carry his favorite olives. And this grown man, in the middle of Trader Joe’s, broke down and cried. Terri writes:

“Of course, the tears weren’t really about the olives. [The olives] were just a tipping point, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  Things are bad. You know it. I know it. Most of us are soul tired.

…natural disasters …unrelenting attacks… at home and abroad.  I don’t need to recite the whole list of issues we carry, individually and collectively.  Most of us are simply and constantly under a great deal of stress…”

All Saints

Every year, the fist Sunday in November, we dress up All Saints Sunday in the garment of the church triumphant—envisioning shining beings in light. We sing for all the saints, our loved ones, some of whom passed just days ago, some who died years ago; perhaps we’ve stopped telling people about the pain of those losses, but we carry that pain, even so. We smile and shake hands and pretend like everything’s fine, and appearances are kept polite and sugar-coated. Who knows about what any of us carry inside?

“Why are you cast down, O my soul,
     and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise you,
     my help and my God.” .

Losses change us, forever change us into more human creatures than we ever anticipated becoming. Rick Harrell joins me this morning in the “Miner’s Refrain” by Gillian Welch.

In the black dust towns of east Tennessee,
All the work is about the same.
You may not go to a hole in the ground,
But you learn the miner’s refrain:
I’m down in a hole,
I’m down in a hole,
Down in a deep, dark hole. 

Now there something good in a worried song
For the trouble in your soul.
‘Cause a worried soul’s been a long way down,
Down in a deep, dark hole:
I’m down in a hole,
I’m down in a hole,
Down in a deep, dark hole.[5]

John Calvin calls this kind of in-breaking of God having a “teachable spirit”—letting humbleness bring us into God’s spiritual classroom—and exchanging our know-it-all spirits for learn-it-all[6] spirits, teachable spirits. In doing so, we learn that losses cannot ruin us. Losses make us more human.

If you haven’t already, eventually you will experience what I’m talking about.

The loss of a home or a job, the loss of status or influence.

The loss of friends. People change, move away.

The loss of community upon graduation. (Balcony)

(Inescapable losses over time…)

The loss of physical ability, the loss of independence.

The loss of the good old days, forever shrinking in the rearview mirror.

The loss of living things: that tree on your street, or your devoted pet.

The loss of a child, a pain I cannot imagine.

Experience is only one way to deal with this kind of sadness. There’s no getting around it. There are no shortcuts under it. You can’t wait it out and hope it goes away on its own. Grief will stand there and wait on you, no expiration date. In unchartered seas, you must sail through. Gillian Welch: There’s something good about this worried song for the trouble in our souls.

 In memoriam: Rush Allums

Once I was completely lost in grief, almost completely. Had I not met Lou Grosso, I might still be wallowing—angry, afraid, alone, abandoned. I remember sitting in my garage and crying. You know that stereotypical male behavior, go to the garage for solitude? Well, I didn’t even live with anyone else. I lived alone. I felt so bad I guess I way trying to get away from myself. And I prayed for what felt like forever: God, vindicate me, fix me, take this grief from me.

And the strangest thing…

I began speaking directly to the person I was grieving.  I told him, “Look, you died three years ago, and I am still a mess. I can’t function. I can’t move on. It’s obvious that I love you and that I’ll never stop loving you, but I have to move on. You have to let go of me. You have to go to the next life, and we’ll meet again.  But now, I can’t keep holding onto you, or I’ll die, too.  I’m so sorry for everything I did. I wish I’d been better. I wish you’d been better, too, but it’s time for you to go, and it’s time for me to live.”

Joy in the Morning

At long last, something began to make sense. That’s the light the Psalmist sings of: the light of God that begins to shine down into that hole. Just as God looked for us in the garden, God looks for us in our grief, illuminating our way to God’s holy hill where a new kind of gladness awaits. This is not the plastic, reality show happiness from TV.  It’s the exceeding joy that comes only through faith: a costly joy, an assurance that we are God’s long-enduring children, never alone.

“Starlings in Winter” by Mary Oliver

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

I know that there are some here today, like me, who dread this afternoon when it will get dark at 5:00 o’clock.  Know this: God will be with you at sundown and sunrise. God is with you when Trader Joe’s discontinues your olives.  God is with you. God will send the searchlight down into that deep dark hole, and, once you’re ready, God will help you climb out. “God’s favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”[7]

[1] “Send Out Your Light” by John L. Bell and Graham Maule (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1996).

[2] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Volume IV (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 852.

[3] Interlinear Bible, accessed online at <http://scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/OTpdf/psa43.pdf> (November 3, 2017)

[4] McCann, 853.

[5] Gillian Welch, “Miner’s Refrain”

[6] Tony Robinson, “Exalted” Stil

[7] Psalm 30:5

 

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