The Pit and the Opportunity
For his anger is but a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. So says the psalmist about God. Some might say, well, this is an overly optimistic view of God. This is from someone who has never really suffered! Must be nice to be able to look at life through rose-colored glasses.
Ever met someone who seemed overly sunny and sanctified? Maybe a few too many “praise the Lords” mixed in with “Be happy attitudes,” as Reverend Schuler once wrote about. You know, not blessed are the poor in spirit or those who mourn, but blessed are the grinners and the perky, positive ones. Eventually with folks like this you always reach a point where you want to say, “Will you knock it off and get real?”
But rose colored glasses or sheltered existence is not what you get in Psalm 30. Not at all. Now, it’s true, the psalmist may have been tempted to see life this way when things were going really well, that things would always be that way. But no. He fell. The psalmist writes of having been in the “pit,” a reference to having one foot in the grave, or perhaps, a description of hell on earth. You know, “My life is the pits!” A pit so despairing that he mockingly asks of God, What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Now there’s some good sarcasm for you! This writer has known hardship, pain, and lots of it.
And yet he declares, For God’s anger is but a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
I believe the psalmist has discovered a couple of things: first, that God is the God of life, and, second, that we can know this even more so when we have fallen into the pit.
God is the God of life. Many think that God exists to be angry and smite us, which is why so many view church and religion as a culture of prohibition. There are all these things that are prohibited: things we shouldn’t do or shouldn’t be. Some of you may remember a little ditty that was common in Christian circles as a summary of what it meant for a young man to be a Christian: “I don’t drink and I don’t chew and I don’t go with girls who do.” And the list goes on: a good Christian doesn’t swear, fool around, smoke, dance, play cards, go to parties and R rated movies. This is all standard stuff in the history of American Christian piety.
And of course the danger in this way of thinking is that those who successfully stay clean tend to think of themselves as superior to others, self-righteous. And those who struggle with these prohibitions will be consumed with guilt. Either way, our image of God is not great here. God is either a party pooper who has all these rules, or God is the one who will punish you for breaking the rules.
Psalm 30 reminds us that God is not about anger but favor. God wants you to have blessings and good things! Today and this week, we are thinking a lot about the blessing of living in the USA, for instance. According to the Psalms, God is a healer. God wants you to celebrate and dance. God is not only about creating life, but nurturing life, enhancing life, saving life – life in bodies like ours, with feelings and sensations, life that experiences trust, vulnerability and love.
What difference does this make? It’s the difference between going through life trying not to do certain things and going through life turned loose to embrace life and give life. With some limits and prohibitions? Of course. You can’t live true life or love your neighbor without that. But the point is life and love, not the limits themselves.
There is a wonderful movie called “Babette’s Feast,” about a nineteenth century Lutheran community in rural Denmark bound by strict rules and characterized by no fun. A mysterious visitor comes their way, a French woman, who works among them as servant, and then offers to prepare a sumptuous feast for them, using up her life savings in the process. The Lutherans are puzzled and even threatened by the prospect of an elaborate feast with wine and gourmet touches prepared by someone who is French. To them, it seems decadent and might be a work of the devil. But they agree. And as this marvelous gift of a gourmet meal unfolds for them, they discover laughter, reconciliation, joy and fellowship in ways that had been eluding them for years. This was of course a divine visitation for them and they didn’t know it.
This is the God whose favor is for a lifetime, the God who heals us and pulls us out of the pit, the God who moves us to dance.
And yet, as the psalmist hints, he may never have known this about God without spending time in the pit and asking God, “Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” It seems that this was necessary for the psalmist to understand that when life is the pits, God is there with you, and will lift you out of the pit. And then we will know that God…is where life comes from. That God is where salvation and hope come from. This world and our own self will not produce it.
In his prosperity, the psalmist said, “I shall never be moved.” He had been established as a strong mountain. Sometimes in life, when things are going well, we may be tempted to think that we have all we need and that we don’t need God. We may be thankful to God, but think we can take the wheel from here. But then, as the psalmist discovered, one can fall flat on one’s face in this life. Things can happen. Fortunes can change.
It is then that misfortune can be an opportunity – an opportunity to turn to God and realize that we are vulnerable in this world and cannot protect anything ourselves. It is then we realize that only by the grace of God can we be given life and favor and good things. Our blessings are gifts from a loving God, never achievements of ours, about which we should feel pride or any self-sufficiency.
The psalmist is no Pollyanna. He praises God as the God of life. He praises God as the one who has not forgotten us when we fall into the pit. He has learned to have faith in the God who alone can give him life and favor. Because he has learned this, he can praise God even from the pit. So may it be with all of us! Amen.