Sunday, May 7, 2017

In the Midst - Psalm 23

A couple of years ago, I was helping to teach a class about prayer. We were teaching lectio divina, which means “sacred reading.” In lectio divina, a short selection of scripture is read several times. Each time the scripture is read, those who are praying dive deeper into prayer. They choose a word or a phrase and chew on it, slowly turning it over in their hearts and minds. Sometimes, lectio divina leads into what is known as Imaginative Prayer. In imaginative prayer, the participants imagine themselves having a conversation with Jesus. They imagine not only what they would say to Jesus, which is what we often do in prayer, but also how Jesus would reply.

That day, as I was praying, I imagined that I was on a boat. I realized that I was imagining Matthew chapter 8, when Jesus and the disciples are out on the water and Jesus is asleep in the bottom of the boat. Suddenly, a terrible storm arises. The disciples are doing everything in their power to keep the boat from sinking. And Jesus keeps sleeping. There is a terrible storm, and Jesus is sleeping! The waves are crashing, the thunder is rolling, and Jesus is sleeping! The disciples wake Jesus up and ask him to help. Jesus gets up and says to his disciples, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then, he calms the storm.

This was the scene I was imagining. But in my imagination, the scene changed. Instead of waking Jesus up, I discovered that Jesus had become the sail for the boat. The mast was a cross, and Jesus was crucified on the cross. This image disturbed me greatly. I could not understand it. I left class that day shaken.

Several weeks later, we invited two catholic sisters from a local monastery to lead our class in a spiritual retreat. The sisters guided us through another experience of lectio divina. Once again, even though the scripture had nothing to do with boats, I saw the image of Jesus, crucified to the mast, in the midst of the terrible storm. This time, I felt deeply in my soul that I had nailed Jesus to the mast.

As I spent more time wrestling with the image, I came to understand that the image was telling me something about how I often pray to God. When times of trouble come and storms arise, I ask God to get me out of the trouble, as quickly as possible. I use Jesus like a sail, to power the boat. I do not want to spend time with Jesus in that trouble. I do not want Jesus to be with me in that trouble. I just want the trouble to end. Quickly.

This image helped me to better understand Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me.” I must admit that I am often afraid of evil. But more and more since experiencing this image of the boat, I have come to see that I fear evil because I struggle to accept that God is with me. I consider troubled times as times of God’s absence, and I want God to just get me through them, as quickly as possible. I think, sometimes, that I expect to only find God at the end of the trouble. But the consistent witness, throughout our scriptures, from Psalm 23 to Matthew 8 and beyond, is that God is present in the midst of trouble. “Even though I walk through the darkest are with me.

Even though I wish that God’s presence in my life meant that I would never experience trouble, this is not what the Bible says. It also is not the daily experience of most people. Most of us experience trouble at some time in our lives. Many of us experience trouble for long stretches of our lives. We might say, looking at the news both in our city, in our country, and around the world, that we are living in troubled times. And God is with us in the midst of these times. And God’s presence can serve to calm our fears.

This is a good word. It is one that I need to hear regularly. Because times like these can cause me to fear. And fear can all too easily stop me from loving others. Fear is a great enemy of love.

However, the wisdom that I gleaned from Psalm 23 and my image of the boat do not end there. After reading through Psalm 23 in preparation for this morning, I realized that there is an even deeper level to my image of the boat. In verse 5, the psalmist says to God, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” For some reason, until this week, I had read this verse without paying attention to it.
God prepares a meal for the psalmist. God nourishes the psalmist. God provides food for the psalmist to keep her healthy, to help her to grow, to give her life. Even more, God anoints the psalmist, providing a blessing--a blessing that overflows! And all of this is done--what, in a quiet, peaceful place, surrounded by friends? No! It is done “in the presence of my enemies.” Surrounded by enemies, in the presence of danger and trouble, the psalmist finds nourishment and blessing.

This is something that I could not imagine, even though I have heard it many times before. It is something that I have a hard time believing. It is something that I struggle to accept. God provides nourishment and blessing, in the midst of trouble.

I admit it! I would prefer a quiet life. I have convinced myself over and over that I will only be able to grow, personally, physically, and spiritually, when everything is quiet and calm. Certainly I operate my best when I am not stressed. I sleep better. I eat better. I react more calmly to frustrations when most of the things in my life are quiet and calm.

And certainly God does desire my health! Certainly God wants to give me peace! Certainly God wants me to be whole! But just because God desires my health and wholeness does not mean that God does not also desire to bless me in the midst of trouble. Indeed, God desires to bless us at all times--good times and troubled times.

Could it be that Jesus was sleeping in the boat because he was setting an example for his disciples? Could it be that he was telling them that they could find rest, even when all around them was in chaos? That they could be at peace, even in a high and stormy gale? That they could experience restoration even in the midst of destruction?

Let me be clear. I do not believe that God causes trouble to happen to us. I also do not believe that God wants us to stand by and do nothing, to just accept it when trouble comes. The book of psalms makes it clear that God hears our cries for help. God hears our shouts. God wants to deliver us from trouble. And God is pleased when we stand up for those who are oppressed. God desires for us to be active in making peace. Blessed are the peace-makers (Matthew 5).

But, God also desires to bless us at all times, even in the midst of trouble. God wants to be with us, even in the darkest valley. God wants to prepare a table for us, even in the presence of our enemies.

We are reminded of this when we eat and drink at this table together. Jesus broke bread and shared the cup at this table. And sitting at this table was Judas, the one who would betray him and send him to his death (Matthew 26:47-56). Sitting at this table was Peter, the one who would deny him--three times! (Mark 14:66-72) Sitting at this table were people who would doubt him and misunderstand him (Luke 24:13-43). And across the centuries, people who would misrepresent Jesus, who would dishonor his name, who would cause pain and suffering--these people would sit at this table, too. And, still, in the midst of the chaos of these other human beings, Jesus broke bread and shared cup. In fact, in the midst of his own death on the cross, Jesus provided for his mother (John 19:26), forgave his killers (Luke 23:34), and brought peace to a thief being crucified with him (Luke 23:39-43).

And I believe that this is one reason Jesus asked us to remember him whenever we break this bread and drink this cup. Because Jesus wanted to remind us that God is in the business of blessing us, even in the midst of trouble. Jesus knew that we would encounter trouble. Jesus knew that storms would rise. And Jesus is not content to simply save us from those troubles. Jesus wants to transform those troubles into blessings. Jesus wants to make resurrection out of crucifixion. Jesus wants to wring life out of death.

And so, as much as possible, I am trying to look for the blessing in the trouble. I am keeping my eyes open for resurrection. Sometimes, I realize now, the blessing only makes sense years after the trouble has passed. Other times, the blessing may not be something that I, myself, will experience, but something God will give to someone else because of what I have suffered. But the restoration is there, in the stormy gale. The comfort is there, in the darkest valley. The table is prepared, in the presence of enemies. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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