This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Monday, October 15, 2012

One Day at a Time.

Psalm 90:12-17.

            The 90th Psalm is a communal lament, a very sober and circumspect reflection on the experience of God’s wrath and the fragility of human life in the face of it.
            What I get from Psalm 90 is a deep sense of remorse and sorrow for sins committed, articulated by people who are feeling the consequences.  They understand themselves to be completely vulnerable to God’s judgment; they know their lives to be as short and temporary and delicate as grass, or a passing and easily forgotten dream.  They know we are only on this earth a very short time.
            Most of that is in the first part of the Psalm.  Our reading begins with verse 12, when the Psalm starts getting a little more hopeful in requesting that God restore favor to them and even make them prosperous again.
            Psalm 90 reveals a maturity that it is often difficult for us.  It takes a grown-up to admit fault, and to recognize that the difficulties one is now going through are due to one’s own actions.  It is easier for us to place blame and claim that we are just the innocent victims of others’ wrongdoing.  Few of us are willing to admit that we are being justly punished by God.  Few of us can publicly acknowledge that we are the ones who messed up, got on God’s bad side, and now suffer the consequences.
            But that is the assumption of an appeal to God like, “Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us.”  Who has the guts to pray like that?  Who says, “I deserve my suffering because I was a jerk”?  There are plenty of Psalms that plea for vindication against one’s enemies; this isn’t one of them… unless you understand that God is the one you have made your enemy.
            The thing is, this Psalm makes very little sense until you get to that point.  You have to kind of hit bottom to understand it.  The Psalm is based on remorse and regret.  You have to recognize your fault and be sorry for what you have done.  That is the basis of this Psalm’s plea for God’s compassion and favor.
            This should not be all that hard for us.  After all, almost every relationship is a matter of mutual participation.  Few of us are purely innocent victims, even in the best of cases.  This Psalm goes even further and takes full responsibility for one’s own suffering.  The basic message is, “I deserve it.  You are right to punish me, O God.”
            It makes us wonder what the Psalmist could have done to deserve God’s wrath.
            The lectionary connects this Psalm to the particular gospel and Old Testament readings we just heard.  On the one hand we have the prophet Amos’ tirade against the rich who oppress the poor, and who now suffer the consequences of their own injustice.  On the other we have Jesus’ encounter with a wealthy young man who is proud of his own piety, but who wants to be perfect.  So Jesus instructs him to sell everything he has and give the proceeds to the poor.  That apparently is the way to perfection, according to Jesus.  But the young man is unwilling to go this far, and he departs in sadness.  Jesus responds by telling his disciples how it is practically impossible for rich people to enter God’s Kingdom.  It is only those who lose what they have in this life who gain eternal life with God.  And then the disciples congratulate themselves about having given everything up to follow Jesus, and Jesus commends them.
            Reading the Psalm through these lenses suggests what kind of sin brings down God’s wrath.  For Amos it is greed, avarice, selfishness, hoarding, stealing, and other transgressions, mainly of the rich.  For Jesus it is similarly our holding on to things, our unwillingness to give up what we have for the sake of others and eternal life.
            These sins undermine the integrity of the commonwealth and kill the kind of prosperity that God intends for us all.  The Psalm itself implies that this is indeed its own background when it appeals, at the end, for a return to a time when work lasted and had value.  “Prosper the work of our hands!”
            So the situation of the Psalm is that people are feeling the wrath of God because of their own “iniquities” and “secret sins,” especially economic ones.  They are recognizing that human life is imperfect and frail.  Our lives are very short, and we unwittingly spend most of our time in disobedience to God.  So we feel God’s love as wrath, more often than not.
            We think we’re being responsible, but our actions have negative consequences in the lives of others.  We think we’re being generous, but self-interest perverts our charity.  We think we’re doing what’s best for our family, but our decisions in the marketplace cause misery and exploitation somewhere else down the line.  We think we’re making prudent investments, but then we discover that our money has only been used to oppress people. 
            We do our best, and it depresses us to know that our best isn’t good enough.  We live in a world where no good deed goes unpunished.  No matter how hard we try we are failing people.  We go to our graves filled with remorse and regret.

            How do we live a life that makes a lasting positive contribution to the lives of others?  How do we live so that we are not always bringing God’s anger down on us?  We’re not asking to live forever; just to be able to see our time on this earth not be wasted in making things worse. 
            The answer in the Psalm is reliance upon the saving and abiding presence of God.  “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”  “Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.”  In other words, be attentive to God, the One who is “our dwelling place in all generations.”
            How do we stay attentive to God?  The Psalm suggests something very practical: “counting our days.”  “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart,” it says.  Counting our days helps to rivet our attention on what we are about.  I know people in recovery from addiction who literally count the consecutive days of their sobriety, having carefully taken “One day at a time,” as they say. 
            We don’t just thoughtlessly check off the days, like we’re prisoners trying to see how many we have left, but I think the Psalm means we carefully review the quality of our life each day.  It sounds a bit compulsive, but people will testify that if you are trying to make any kind of significant change in your life, from losing weight to learning a language, a daily review of your progress helps.
            If we take stock every day of our prayer life, if we stop to consider how well we did today as a disciple of the Way of Jesus, if we go over what we did and said in our relationships with others, we gain what the Psalm calls “a wise heart.”  We become more present, more real, less distracted and lost in our own ego-centric thoughts.  If we can affirm that in this particular day we made some incremental progress, the same way a person in recovery celebrates another day in control of their addiction, we can see the difference.
            If we stop and reflect about it daily we will see how God has been present among and with and within us all along.  We can begin to see that God has always been with us, even when we were not with God.  Even when we were distracted, overwhelmed, consumed by our responsibilities, even rationalizing and justifying our own self-centeredness and self-righteousness, even then the Lord was patiently waiting within us for us to come back.  If we do make a conscious point of coming back every day, then we will be less likely to wander off tomorrow.
            When the Psalm says “teach us to count our days” it is framed in the plural.  This is something we do best together, as a community.  People in recovery have regular meetings and sponsors, recognizing that healing is much more difficult if you’re trying to do it alone, by yourself.  Jesus calls and establishes a community of disciples.  Christianity is not something you can do simply as an isolated individual.

            It is the regular and communal stock-taking, counting the days, that opens up the heart and the imagination to what God is doing in our lives and in the world.  Maybe we don’t see it in our own experience but if we hear about how someone else has seen God at work in their life, we can be more aware of God’s presence in our own.  We may remind one another of God’s goodness.  We may discover together new ways of realizing discipleship.
            That line in the Psalm about being satisfied in the morning with God’s steadfast love has become a traditional invocation for morning prayer.  It is our opening our eyes and making ourselves ready to make this coming day one that counts.  It is alerting our senses and our consciousness to look actively this day for those places where God is at work in our life.  “Seek and you will find,” says Jesus.  If we are looking for God we are more likely to find God than if we are closed and unconscious, not expecting to find anything.
            If we affirm God’s presence in the morning together, and then gather in the evening to consider how we experienced God’s presence that day, then God’s work will be manifest to us.  Maybe not every day for everyone.  Sometimes we do wonder how long it’s going to take for us to perceive God’s compassion in our lives.  But the Psalm is saying that being aware of God takes discipline.  It takes faithfully going through the motions day after day.  We have to expect it in advance, and we have to reflect upon it afterwards.
            But the point of the Psalm is perceiving and affirming God’s presence in spite of our own failures and weakness and limits, affirming God’s goodness and deliverance in the face of our experience of God’s wrath due to our own shortcomings.
            God’s work and glorious power is manifest in Scripture mostly in God’s acts of liberation and justice on behalf of the people, especially the poor and disadvantaged.  The prototypical act of God is when God sets the people free from slavery in Egypt.  God’s actions always have to do with freedom.  By the time we get to Jesus, we see this happening in people being delivered from sickness or possession by demons.  But it is important to remember that God is about freedom and the lifting up of the lowly (with the consequent bringing down of those who exalt themselves over others.) 

            Both Amos and Jesus indicate what we actually do to find freedom and life.  We have to lose what we have that is tying us down.  Amos hammers at the crimes of the wealthy; they have too much while others have too little.  But it is Jesus who comes right out and says basically “lose your stuff.”  He instructs the man to sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and then follow him.  The man is to divest himself of his assets, which Jesus correctly sees are keeping him from living the life to which he is called.
            For that man, what he has to assess each day is how well he was doing at that.  Not everyone is called to exactly the same discipline.  However, Jesus does call everyone to get rid of whatever in their life is holding them back and keeping them from a full life with and in God. 
            How well are we doing unloading that stuff?  Maybe that’s what we need to review every day.  Are we still having things, relying on things, cherishing, keeping, saving, hoarding things that are separating us from God?  In so doing, are we creating injustice in the world?  Are we objects of God’s wrath because of it?
             Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” 
            With Jesus, it is what we lose, what we give away, what we contribute to others that reveals our character.  He doesn’t measure our profit or savings; he looks at the other side of the ledger.  He looks at our losses.  He looks at what we have left behind to follow him.  And he says that is what we receive back in the Kingdom of God.
            The Way of Jesus involves a kind of opposite accounting.  Instead of adding up at the end of the day what we have gained, our income, he judges us according to what we have lost.  Did we lose some of our greed?  Did we lose our self-righteousness?  Did we lose our anger, our fear, our hatreds?  Did we lose our superiority?  And yes, did we relinquish some of the junk clogging our homes?  Were we generous with our money?  Our time?  Our attention?
            That, it turns out, is the kind of work that lasts.  It is this work of our hands, when we stretch them out in giving to others, when we use our hands to toss out the things blocking our spirits, that God prospers. 
            At the end of the day the question is: How much of your self did you lose, and how much of Christ did you allow to fill your resulting emptiness?  Remembering that while what we lose is clearly our work, what we become is God’s.    

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