by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
20 January 2008
The third step to spiritual health and wholeness is to "make a decision to turn your will and your life over to God." We've already admitted our own weakness, that we are unable to go it alone. We've already had faith in something larger than ourselves. Now we come to the point of action, which is developing the willingness that is not our self-will, but is God's will. It is bringing our own will in line with God's. It is sincerely praying the prayer, "not my will, but thine be done."
Today's psalm opens with the lines
I waited patiently for the Lord, he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to God.
Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.
The great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, whom I quote more often than almost anyone, has the handiest analysis of the Psalms. He divides the psalms not into their classic literary type, but according to their overall orientation. He finds three kinds psalms. The first are psalms of orientation. They reflect a stable, reliable world. Then there are psalms of disorientation, when life is in chaos. Not only do these two types exists, there is a movement from one group to the other. He writes, "a major move of the Psalms is the move from an ordered, reliable life to an existence that somehow has run amok."
Whenever people come to me seeking pastoral guidance, I generally recommend reading the psalms. The reason is that every human emotion is contained in them somewhere. That includes all of the emotions that come from the pit, the depths, the darkness. We think of this collection of hymns as a praise book, but the truth is that there are more psalms of the second type, songs of disorientation, more lament psalms than there are any other type. The funny thing is how different a contemporary hymnal is from the ancient Jewish hymnal. I once looked in about half a dozen contemporary hymnals and only found one of them that even included the category "lament," and it had maybe two songs.
The second reason that I recommend that people read the psalms is that just as there is a move from orientation to disorientation, there is also a move out of disorientation to the third type of psalm, which is a psalm of new orientation. The psalms of new orientation are filled with spontaneity and surprise, the joy that comes from an unexpected rescue. They are more psalms of salvation than they are psalms of order and reliability.
These psalms are not a return to the ordered bliss of the first category. No, the psalm writers respect human experience. They know that once you've been to the pit, it remains with you. And even if you get lifted out of it and have a new song in your mouth, the memories of the pit stay with you. Brueggemann writes that with psalms of new orientation, even if they are psalms of praise or thanksgiving, at root they share the same form as the lament. A hymn of victory or song of thanksgiving is thanksgiving for overcoming some trouble or victory won from "a situation that could have ended in defeat but did not."
The most familiar of contemporary hymns that fits this description is the favourite of many, "It is Well with My Soul." This hymn was composed by Horatio G. Spafford after a series of tragedies. In 1871 he suffered great financial losses during the great Chicago fire. Then, in 1873 a ship carrying his wife and four daughters sank, and only his wife survived. Spafford wrote the lyrics after he had later sailed past the very spot where the girls had died.
When peace , like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say,
it is well, it is well with my soul.
Psalm 40, which we read to day is a proposal for what the newly oriented life looks like. For example, if you want a description of the essence of our faith, you need look no further than verses 9 and 10:
I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
Because of God's faithfulness and love, the rescued person can now delight in God's will, as in verse 8:
I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.
Obedience to God's will is not a burden, but fulfills the desires of the rescued person's heart, because now her desires are attuned with God's desires.
Psalm 40 is rather unique in that the song of thanksgiving and praise runs through verse 10 and then the remainder of the psalm is a lament. This confuses the standard order, where lament comes before new orientation. What's going on here? Brueggemann writes that this psalm serves as a reminder to us that lives "moves in and out." That we are not rescued from the pit only once and forever, but may find ourselves there again and again. The rescued person needs God's care again.
This is an important truth for us to remember as we embark upon these new ministries. We must remember that the caregiver themselves need care. For example, as we prepared for this Sunday the health of Neill's mother and my grandfather declined sharply, distracting our focus and making us ones who needed care rather than ones in a position to care for others.
Yet, it is precisely this that makes us good care-givers. Notice that throughout this psalm the author says that because of what God has done for her, she must now proclaim God's faithfulness to others. What God does for us is not only for us, it bears witness to everyone that God is faithful. We have been cared for, now we must care for others.
Sometimes it appears that things move slowly in church life, when in fact, they happen exactly when God would have them to happen. In October 2006 Michael Piazza led us in the prophetic renewal workshop, wherein he gave ideas and tools for how our church could live with faithfulness and vitality into our mission. In later council and other meetings, we formulated those ideas into plans. One of those ideas was a revitalization of our care ministries, which we included in our 2007 strategic plan for April. Well, when April rolled around, the time just didn't seem right to me. I made a few attempts at some things, but they didn't bear any fruit, so I did what I have learned many times in my church life – I waited and prayed. And low and behold, when God was ready, everything fell into place.
First at the end of summer, Neill Spurgin came along and in a series of conversations he told me he could do whatever I needed him to do, but that what he really wanted to do was care ministry. About the same time, Judy Hey was exploring what new ministries she could engage in, given that her time as a congregational officer was soon coming to an end. One day I received an epiphany, why not see if Judy could be a parish nurse. That epiphany led to a series of conversations, both of us doing research, and within a couple of months, Judy went for a week of training with the Catholic Charities. And now she is filled with so many ideas that every time she and I talk I can't help but share her enthusiasm.
But it isn't only Neill and Judy. Here are Judith and Dana, willing to use their medical knowledge to help. Nancy Sanders ready to revitalize the St. Luke's Team. And in the last few months Robin Dorner, Nance Cunningham, and Dan Mobley have all become part of our congregational family and each of them has knowledge and skills related to health and wellness.
There is a move of God at work within us, leading us to new orientation, giving us a new song to sing. We have only to convert our wills to God's will and trust God in God's work, in God's time. And tonight we begin to sing that new song. It is our deep desire that many will feel the steadfast love of God through us and put their trust in God.