Is God Trustworthy?

Psalm 27 is a psalm of trust. It addresses the author’s deepest fears: the enemy is coming and there is nothing to be done. All of us have moments in our lives when we fear. We might be afraid of being alone. We might be afraid of what will happen after death. We might fear the ending of a relationship. We might fear dogs or snakes. Fear is part of life in the world. Fear is an emotion that helps us know when there is the potential for danger. Fear protects us. And yet scripture is reminds us again and again, “be not afraid.” This psalm contains three explicit commands to not be afraid and to not live in fear. The author give us a choice: trust God or live in fear.

And that’s all very well and good but how do we not live in fear? Sometimes our fears are grounded in past experience that something is dangerous. Sometimes fear is less rational but just real. Sometimes we can predict where the danger lies. Sometimes we can see it off in the distance. Sometimes it sneaks up on us. The Psalm uses the imagery of an army surrounding the writer. There is nowhere to run. There is nowhere to hide. The author is outnumbered. What to do now?

The author turns to God and says: I trust you! If I trust you, I have no need to be afraid. God is here and I have nothing fear. But how does the author know that God is trustworthy?

Saying, “I trust you,” doesn’t make someone worthy of trust. In the instance of this video the test subject proclaimed again and again “I trust you,” and yet only one person caught him. We can say that we trust God but that doesn’t necessarily make God worthy of the trust.

One of the things you might notice in this video is that the expression of trust is one sided. There is no explanation for the trust. There is no explanation about what it is that he wants to trust the other person with. There is no warning that there is something going on in his life that he needs support with. The declaration of trust is made in a void. The declaration of trust is made without context. The declaration of trust is made without any type of relationship.

If the man had gone to a friend and asked them to catch him, the response would have been quite different. His friends would have preparation time, would know what the expectations are, and go out of their way to support him because they would not want to see him hurt. If he had gone to strangers and explained the exercise, the response might have been better. People would have some warning about what was going to happen and the expectations being placed on them.

Trust is something that requires relationship. It isn’t one-sided and it doesn’t happen in a void. We know in human relationships that people often need to earn our trust. We have certain people we know we can trust to catch us. There are many others that we might not be certain if that will catch us because we don’t have enough of a relationship with them to know whether or not they will be there when we need them. There are others that we have learned not to trust because of our experience with them. Our ability to trust God is similar. We need enough experience of God to know that God will catch us. Or maybe our experience of God leads us not to trust. Either way, we need to decide for ourselves whether or not to trust God.

If we don’t have relationships we are certain we can trust, we can do a couple things in our lives. We could risk trusting. Like the person in the video we could go to random people and hope that they catch us. We could also decide that trust isn’t worth the risk and so we try to do everything on our own without the support of others.

What does all this have to do with the psalm? This psalm is the psalm of someone who has experience of God. The writer of this psalm has been through enough of life to know that God is faithful. This author has been around the block a few times. The author is not placing trust in his own army or supporters. The author hasn’t cut himself off to fight the battle alone. The author places trust in God. The trust isn’t a blind, random trust but a trust that has been built through a lifetime of experience. It is a trust that is based on the author’s relationship with God.

How do we know that God is worthy of our trust? How do we know that God will be present when most needed? How do we know that God won’t harm us? We don’t know any of these things unless we are in a relationship and give God opportunities to build trust with us. Think about any new relationship that we enter. There needs to be an opportunity to build trust. Sometimes our trust in other people increases over time. Sometimes behavior proves that another is not to be trusted. Trust is not something that can simply be willed or something that we can simply be told and then know. Trust (or lack of it) has to be experienced in order to be real.

The psalm begins with the author expressing, very matter-of-factly: I know God brings light in darkness. I know God is present so there is no reason to be afraid. This is not someone new to difficulty. It is not someone new to God. This is someone with lots of God experience to back up the claims.

Further along in the psalm, the writer describes one great wish: “to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” This request, according to Walter Brueggemann, is about “encountering the life-giving divine presence.”[1] So the author’s one wish is to be in the life-giving presence of the divine. The author is constantly seeking God in all moments of life.

The author has a second request: “teach me your way O God and lead me on a level path.” The word teach is the root of torah. In the post, Way to Live, I wrote about torah as the law of God that gives life—not the set of rules that we follow—but the advice given allows us to live with love and compassion and healthy relationships. Torah becomes both the teaching itself and the way in which it imprints itself on those who seek God. Torah is both noun and verb. It is way of life that we learn and it is the process of learning how to live with God.

The author of this particular psalm seeks God but has enough experience to know that God, and the way of God, must be learned. God is not a magic bullet that will take away all the hardships and difficulties of life. The relationship that we learn and create with God sustains us through all the hardships and difficulties. Without the relationship, we cannot be sure that God will catch us when we most need catching. The learning of God’s way creates the place where we can trust God.

This learning is not a onetime thing but a lifelong process. The author knows very well that death may happen at any moment but that God is in the midst of death and life and everything in between. The author, even in the midst of being surrounded by enemies, is recommitting to learning again and more deeply God’s way of life.

Trust is not something that necessarily happens naturally and it isn’t something that we can switch on and off. Trust is something that is learned but it is also something that we choose. We choose to learn the torah, God’s way, in order to build trust. Author begins the psalm by choosing between trust and fear.

The author begins with the choice between trust in God and fear:

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

Trust in God is not magic but is learned through relationship and learning God’s way of life. Trust cannot be accepted simply by word of mouth. Because God has been faithful and trustworthy in the past, the author ends the psalm with these words:

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

[1]. Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Psalm 27.

Save Me, O my God!

Psalm 69 is a psalm of lament.  Lament is a spiritual practice for those moments when it seems like the world is falling apart around us. Lament is not just complaining but expressing our deepest hurt, fear, concern and pain to God in the midst of emotional and spiritual and sometimes physical turmoil.

A lament follows a particular pattern. In most Psalm laments there is a petition followed by a complaint. In this case the Psalm begins: “Save me, O God” followed by “the waters have come up to my neck.” Laments often begin with a sense that the writer has been abandoned by God. Their world is crumbling and God seems to have disappeared. Laments are good for moments of death, for moments of receiving a diagnosis of some sort or moments when we witness violence in the world. This week we might look around and wonder where God is following the massacre in a Charleston church. This is a time for lament.

Lament may be personal or communal but it touches raw places in our lives. I want to walk you through a personal experience of lament that came to mind as I was reading this psalm.

For many years as a child and teenager it felt like God had abandoned me and left me alone. When I was in grade five, I invited a friend for a sleepover. She started a rumour that I was lesbian. I ended up in the principal’s office every day for a week as they tried to figure out what to do with me but no one ever talked to me about what I was experiencing and I didn’t understand what was happening. This was in the days before it was common to talk about sexual orientation and before it was a simple thing to Google. What I knew was that it felt like most of my friends disappeared and enemies and bullies seemed to be everywhere.  I felt like everyone, including God, had abandoned me. My parents required that I go to church and so I went and I waited for God to save me. I waited for God to end the suffering and pain. I prayed that God would make it easier. I prayed that the people who hurt me would be punished. God seemed far away and unjust.

After about three years of bullying, in 1988 when the United Church was talking about sexual orientation and ministry, CBC radio interviewed a lesbian couple. Listening to this conversation was my first inkling that there was more than one sexual orientation. I knew that God had come through for me in our church’s courageous decision. I was no longer alone. I still didn’t fully understand the varieties of sexual orientation or what that meant in my life or the world but I grasped the church’s stance that no one is beyond God’s love. It felt like a lifeline.

And I went to church expecting to hear love expressed. I went to church expecting to experience God’s love first hand in my own church community and instead found that even in a community of faith, I was alone. And I was afraid. Even in the faith community, God had abandoned me. I could have stayed in a place of anger at God and the people who had hurt me. I could have stayed in a place of fear and aloneness– and I did for many years. But if we follow the pattern of lament, something else happens.

This psalm goes on for twenty-nine verses about how God has abandoned the writer, how the water is overwhelming them, how their enemies are coming from everywhere and surrounding them. This is a lament that goes on and on. The writer’s world is falling apart from every direction and in every way. This writer has nothing to live for and continues to plead with God.

After verse 29, something else happens. The pain, the anger, the fear and the bitterness are all spent. All that remains is God. The writer has poured out everything only to find that in that most painful spot—the spot that is now empty—God resides. This is the place where the addict hits rock bottom. This is the place where nothing could possibly get worse. In the place that is left behind when all the pain has been poured out, there is a spark of God that has the ability to sustain and guide us through the darkest of nights. That little spark that starts from emptiness has the ability to grow brighter and help to transform ourselves and the world. Lament is incomplete unless it seeks God’s transformation. Lament that remains as petition and complaint doesn’t accomplish anything except bitterness and pain.

As we see the massacre in Charleston and place this event within the context of ongoing racism there is so much to lament. In Canada we might lament the legacy of residential schools and the ways in which there seems to be no end to the hurt. We can lament the disparity in education, income, medical care, living conditions. We can lament all the hurt and pain that has been caused. Lament by itself gets us no further than acknowledging there’s a problem and maybe captivates us with fear, anger, bitterness or resentment. Lament by itself might give a sense of helplessness.

In the moment when we have poured everything out to God, there is finally space to experience God. Lament serves the purpose of turning us from our own sense of helplessness to a place where we can rely on God and be open to God’s spirit. When there is nothing left to lose we can experience God. We can experience God at the end of the rope or as we hit rock bottom. Lament takes us into the heart of God.

In the place where lament turns to praise, we can look back and see the God who walks with us and who nurtures us. In my own experience, I could look back and see glimpses of people who had reached out to me. I could identify a few moments when I had felt safe. It wasn’t that God had abandoned me in the lament and left me alone. My own experience was so overwhelming that I couldn’t see or feel anything beyond the pain and isolation. The sense that others had also been so isolated and the church’s acknowledgement of God’s love for all people was the turning point for me. That was the moment when I could begin to recognize that I hadn’t been abandoned by God. It was also the moment when I knew that God was calling me to a life of changing the world and that the hatred and violence didn’t need to be so overwhelming and consuming.

When we look at the experiences of racism and violence it might feel like God has disappeared. It might feel like God has simply left the world to fend for itself as we humans destroy each other with hatred and violence. As we witness the destruction in the world around us and pour out our grief, the moment when we catch a glimpse of God’s presence and can begin to affirm that we are not alone, is the moment where our lives and the world can change. That one thing that brings our attention back to God doesn’t need to be a big thing but it needs to gives us something to hold onto.

As I have listened to residential school survivors tell their stories, I lament the experiences of violence and abuse that occurred for so many. I lament the ongoing effects these experiences have on individuals and communities. This week I had an opportunity to speak with an elder who is leading a cultural camp for aboriginal youth to help show a better way. The elder hopes that the experiences at camp will prevent substance abuse and minimize violence. Having this conversation with an elder helps to move me from a place of lament to a place of hope.

Lament gives us a place to pour out our pain and frustration and our longing for change and salvation. The practice of lament is important in our faith as we give over our hurt and brokenness to God so that we may be healed and transformation can occur. May it be so in our lives and the world.

Celebrating the United Church of Canada for 90 years

This is a reflection on the past, present and future of the United Church of Canada as we celebrate 90 years. It incorporates Psalm 113 which praises God’s goodness. The psalm reminds us that God is bigger than we are. God has been faithful in the past. God is faithful in the present and God will be faithful in the future.

God is good in the past. God drew together and the spirit invited congregations across Canada from the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist churches to work together. God’s spirit offered a vision of what churches could accomplish working together. Over the last 90 years, God’s spirit has worked through the United Church to bring about social change and create leaders. The United Church was the first church to ordain women beginning in 1936. In 1942, the United Church was active in a movement to resist conscription. In the 1950’s, the United Church supported the development of Medicare. In the 1960’s there was a shift towards a more tolerant view on alcohol usage and the church provided emergency aid to Vietnam draft dodgers. In 1988, the United Church affirmed that people are welcome in ministry regardless of sexual orientation. In 1998, the United Church apologized to First Nations for our role in residential schools and we continue to live into this apology. The church has been involved in anti-racism work and inter-cultural/interfaith work, HIV-AIDS awareness and relief, support for same-sex marriage, peace work in Israel and Palestine, various emergency relief efforts following natural disasters and climate change. These are just some of the things the United Church of Canada has been involved with over the last 90 years. Some of these are areas of concern that we continue to learn more about and seek a faithful response. Right from its inception, the United Church has a history of speaking and acting in ways that are often counter-cultural but result from the prompting of the spirit. The psalm that we heard this morning speaks of how “God raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap…gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children.” The Psalm has this sense that God’s faithfulness changes the circumstances of those most in need. Those who might otherwise be without the basic requirements of life and without community to love and support them are welcomed by this God. This is the work that the United Church has been about in the past.

God is good in the present. The congregation of St. Andrew’s, that I work with, is gifted with a healthy congregation. We have a large number of people, a variety of ages and financial stability and God continues to be active among us. There is an openness to exploring the ways in which God calls us to be church and to share the story of God’s loving presence with many people.

The past and present of the United Church place us in a good place to enter the future. There are mainline protestant congregations all over North America that are growing and thriving. These include some United, Evangelical Lutherans and Anglican churc, and, if you happen to be American, Episcopalians United Methodist and United Church of Christ, along with a few others. Diana Butler Bass, and others, have done research about these congregations and the characteristics they share.

Christianity for the rest of usI want to introduce these characteristics to you today. This is a very quick summary of twelve characteristics of Diana identifies in thriving churches.

Hospitality: Hospitality invites everyone into God’s love. People are invited as they are. There is no requirement to change or to become “like us,” but people are transformed by welcoming and being welcomed. There is no requirement to pay dues or fees. God’s table is open to everyone and when people are welcome they want to provide that welcome to others and so will support with their energy and their finances a community that invites and includes. Many congregations believe that they are welcoming but are hesitant to be explicit or have not addressed the invisible barriers that prevent full participation in the life of the community. Sometimes congregations assume that everyone knows they are welcome but for many people who are not used to coming to church there is a large question mark about whether they will be welcome and whether they will fit in. The churches that thrive have done intentional work internally to identify the barriers within themselves that prevent inclusion and then are explicit telling the community that everyone is welcome. This is particularly important in regards to sexual orientation and gender identity. The explicit welcome gives people a clue that this is a community where they can be safe and talk about all aspects of their lives. Hospitality requires us to look beyond our own social groups and intentionally invite people we don’t know into conversation.

Discernment: Discernment is about listening carefully to each other and listening for God within each other. Discernment requires that in all our decision making we listen carefully for God and ground our decisions theologically and spiritually. Sometimes the decisions God requires of us are not the easiest, the cheapest or the least complicated. Sometimes God requires us to enter difficult and painful places in order to be faithful.

Healing: The practice of healing may include things like reiki and healing touch which work on an energetic level to heal body, mind and soul. Healing includes praying with and for people who are ill and dying. Healing may include the act of anointing. Healing is also about mending broken relationships and the practice of forgiveness.

Contemplation: Contemplation includes all our spiritual practices: silence, meditation, prayer or walking a labyrinth. These are the things that calm our minds and bodies so that we can be open to God, open to the spirit. These practices ground us, root us, give us energy and peace in our lives so that we are better able to be faithful servants of Christ in the world.

Testimony: What is the story of God in your life? When and how have you experienced God? The practice of testimony is telling these stories. It doesn’t have to be a big story or earth shattering. There is no right or wrong story. My story is not better or worse than yours. Each of us has a story of God’s spirit touching our lives. Sometimes we tell these stories to one or two other people. Sometimes we tell these stories publicly. The setting doesn’t matter. What matters is the practice of talking about our faith with others.

Diversity: Diversity is related to hospitality. A congregation that is diverse reflects the makeup of the community around it including economic diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, diversity of abilities, sexual orientation and gender identity, ages and theology. A congregation that is diverse works hard to hold the differences together – not with the intention of trying to make others fit the mold but with the intention of celebrating the diversity that God created. The diversity is reflected in all areas of a church’s life.

Justice: Congregations that thrive are intentional in their justice making. They listen to the stories from the truth and reconciliation process and seek opportunities to build relationships with First Nations. They participate in Pride parades and celebrations – maybe even host their own. They are intentional about their responsibility to the creation and environmental concerns. They work to assist people living in poverty and to change the systems so that no one needs to be hungry. They support this work financially as individuals and as a congregation. They support this work with their time and their energy.

Worship: Worship remains central to thriving congregations. It is worship that engages all our senses: we hear, we see, we touch and move our bodies, we taste and smell. Worship reflects the diversity of our congregations in the leadership and content of worship.  We use a variety of styles of music to enhance worship and touch our souls.

Reflection: Reflection includes study of scripture and theology and then applies what we are learning to the situations around us. Reflection invites us to think about situations in world and offer a faithful response. This is where our faith moves from an intellectual idea about our faith to an action that is lived out in the world. Reflection happens individually and in small groups.

Beauty: The final trait that Dianna Butler Bass identifies is beauty. The space needs to be cared for. It needs to be clean and occasionally updated. Sometimes things need to be replaced, not because they are no longer functional, but because they are looking worn and tired. Function and beauty need to go together. If you watch any of the cooking shows on television they talk about eating with our eyes first. The same is true of our worship and gathering spaces. If a space looks dull, boring and dingy people will want to spend less time in the space.  We need art and things of beauty throughout our church buildings—quilts and banners, photographs, pottery, painting, sculpture, live plants. We include laughter, music, drama in all aspects of church life to help us feel alive and sense God’s presence among us.

All of these practices are ancient. They are not ideas and concepts invented recently. The original concepts are Biblically based. Many of these practices were part of the early church and have either been lost, suppressed or corrupted through time. Many of these practices have been a part of the United Church since our early days. We are in an exciting time in the church and I am incredibly hopeful about the future of the church generally and about the ministry that lies ahead for St. Andrew’s.

There are significant and unknown changes ahead for the United Church of Canada. The church as we currently know it will no longer exist. It will look very different five or ten years from now. There will be many proposals going to the national General Council in August and those decisions will need to be confirmed by congregations. Over the next few months, something will begin to emerge and congregations will be given the opportunity to participate in shaping the future of the United Church of Canada. Watch for this information as it becomes available and participate in the conversations that will be happening within our congregations.

As we move into a time of upheaval the focus for our congregation, and denomination, as we live into this future needs to be about grounding ourselves in God’s spirit and reclaiming ancient traditions for a modern world. I am confident and hopeful that a new church that will continue to serve God’s world will emerge in beauty, love and compassion. God’s presence has moved through the church, is among us now and will continue to be faithful into the unknown future.

Way to Live

The book of Psalms is a collection of poetry which was originally accompanied by a stringed instrument. There are five different types of Psalms: Laments, Praise, Thanksgiving, Royal Psalms (grounded in life events of King David), Wisdom Psalms.

The book of Psalms begins with wisdom—some advice on how to live. The first word of the psalm is translated as happy or blessed. The Hebrew word relates to “walking or journeying through life.”[1] This first Psalm sets the theme for the collection of Psalms: God in the midst of real life: God in the midst of despair; God in the midst of joy; God in the midst of thanksgiving; God in the midst of life events. God is present in all aspects of life and the Psalms affirm that presence as we walk through everything that life offers us.

Happy or blessed also carries with it a sense of deep joy. This is not a temporary happiness that is based on a fleeting moment where life seems perfect or we receive something we want. Blessed does not refer to the idea that we receive what we want. These translations imperfectly suggest a joy that goes deep within a person and is essence of who they are and how they live.

“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked.” In this context the wicked are the ones who resist God’s teachings and the righteous are those who choose to live according to God’s teachings.[2] Who we choose to be around and spend time with can strongly influence how we live and the choices we make. Have you noticed that being around people who are negative or angry can sometimes bring out the same emotions in us? If you are around people who are joy-filled their zest for life can be infectious.

The psalm goes on to give advice about how to determine what is right and good. The psalm suggests that the “law of God” is what should guide our actions and choices. There is a challenge with the translation here as law refers to the guidance, teaching and instruction found in the Torah – the first five books of our Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These books provide the grounding for fullness of life. The reader is encouraged to meditate, to pray on this guidance from the teachings. The Hebrew word translated as meditating refers to the practice and sound of chanting the Torah. The law, in this case, is not a set of rules to be followed to the letter but the advice and instruction found in the Torah.

The Torah emphasizes the God-human relationship and the relationships among humans. Provision is made for welcoming strangers and caring for people who can’t support themselves. As well as prescribing a particular model for worship and personal piety, the outlook provided in the Torah is one that benefits the entire community.

The person who meditates, prays over, absorbs the teachings and guidance found in scripture becomes like “trees planted by streams of water.” These trees are “rooted, grounded and nourished by streams of living water.”[3] They are lush and abundant.

And now that the psalm has identified the source of joy as God’s instruction and described the results of being grounded in God’s scripture the psalm brings to light a contrast. This is the contrast with what happens when we are not rooted and grounded in God. During harvest, the grain was tossed into the air. The grain fell back to the earth to be gathered up and kept. The chaff, the husk was blown away on the wind. There is a strong contrast between the tree that is rooted deep and nourished from the source of water and the chaff that simply blows away with a gust of wind.

In this psalm the wicked are those who are unrooted, who have nothing to hold them. The wicked are the ones who deny their source in God and are unable or unwilling to be open to the wisdom of God. When life becomes challenging the wicked, the unrooted ones, are like chaff that get blown away. We need the rootedness and groundedness in God, the source of our life, for our very survival.

This psalm invites the reader to begin by making a simple choice. Do you want to be rooted and grounded in your source like a tree planted by water or will you be like the chaff that simply blows away. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville studied how Americans lived, and he observed, “Each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation a very puny object, namely himself.”[4]

Even 180 years ago there was recognition of how inward looking and individualistic North American culture has become. That individualism cuts us off from our source. If we look at the culture in which we live, we know that church attendance is dropping in many congregations and denominations and yet there are many people who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious. Over the last century, North American theology has typically supported this individualism through requiring assent of particular belief systems. These belief systems often focus on me (the individual) and my faith and not on the community. The Torah, that ancient wisdom that the Psalmist is referencing is very much based in a communal theology and culture. This theology requires the individual to participate in a relationship in the Holy which then informs every aspect of an individual’s life. That life is grounded and rooted in God and takes the individual beyond themselves and into many different relationships.

As people of faith we need to root and ground ourselves in the Biblical tradition. One of the ways that the spirit is at work now is that many churches that ground themselves in God, in study of scripture, in regular practices of prayer, of welcoming the stranger—essentially returning to this psalm and the Torah that it references—are thriving. Churches that move beyond the walls of their building, that practice their faith in every aspect of daily life are alive and well.

Whose advice do we choose to follow: the cultural norms of the world or the advice of our Creator? Do we choose to hate our enemies or love them? Do we choose to ignore the diversity among us in favor of closed communities? Do we allow people to live alone in poverty because that’s just how the world is or do we seek to transform lives and communities? These are the basic questions of life that this psalm requires us to respond to by meditating on scripture and by listening for the word of God among us so we can be rooted and grounded in faith like trees planted by the water.

[1] Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Psalm 1.

[2] Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Psalm 1.

[3] Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Psalm 1.

[4] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Wahington, DC: Regenery, 2002), 450, quoted in Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms.  (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Psalm 1.