Scripture: Psalm 23, Psalm 150
If this is your first Sunday at First United Methodist Church, I say welcome and we aren’t always like this. We usually worship in a large sanctuary at the other end of our campus. It’s under renovation, so we are in a new space for the summer and early fall. However, I suspect that things are not really that different for the folks who have been here for a while.
- Show of hands, if you are sitting on the same side of the room where you normally sat in the sanctuary, raise your hand.
- If you are sitting close to the same people that you normally do, raise your hand.
- If you are in the summer choir, raise your hand if you are sitting where you usually sit.
- If you were sitting in the balcony, the back of the sanctuary, raise your hand. Where are you now?
- If you used to sit at the far right (your right) side of the sanctuary, and you would escape out the secret side door so you can beat the Episcopalians to lunch, and you are now disappointed there’s a clergy standing right there, raise your hand.
We are creatures of habit. Even in a new space, after a period of discomfort and trying it out, it seems many of us have settled into what was comfortable before.
It was odd getting reoriented in here. It is no less odd finding our place when we are out of sorts in other parts of our lives.
It’s hard to find our habits and our places of comfort when our lives are in transition.
We want to do one of two things whenever we are in the middle of something new: we either want to reset or restore.
I think of a computer whenever it starts running slow. We can do two things: reset or restore the system.
System reset it is to turn it off and turn it on again. That fixes 90% of computer problems. The other 10% is checking if it is plugged in. It doesn’t change much in the computer–it just gives it a fresher start. For humans, that’s what a good nap, a workout, or a finishing of a project does for us. It resets our system and makes us feel like ourselves again. There’s a Snicker’s commercial with the tagline “you aren’t yourself when you are hungry.” I see partners looking at each other. When we are overwhelmed and need to reorient ourselves, we need a reset.
System Restore turns it back in time and rewrites your computer or your phone to an earlier point in its history, even as far as what it was when it came off the assembly line. If you reset your phone, you most likely won’t lose any pictures. If you restore your phone, you most likely will lose everything since that point. For us, sometimes we want to go back before any of the troubles started, and we yearn for the old days.
When we find ourselves in a new place and a new way, we want to restore and go back to the way things were. But we find out, either slowly or painfully quickly, that there is no going back. And no book in our Bible helps us with that more than the Psalms.
This past month we’ve been studying the Psalms, the hymns and poetry found in the bible. We looked at Psalms of orientation when things were all in their place, everything is right in the world. We looked at Psalms of disorientation when we are knocked off our feet, when we cry out to God that no, everything is not fine, no matter what we say when people ask. And now today we look at Psalms of reorientation, of figuring out what to do after we’ve found our feet beneath us again.
Psalm 23 seems like a psalm of orientation, of saying everything is put together, God is guiding me, I’m a sheep, everything’s good, green pastures, still waters, overflowing cups, it is all good. And yet the Psalmist knows the valley of the shadow of death. The Psalmist knows what it means to have one’s soul depleted, emptied, and needing to be restored. The Psalmist knows what it means to fear evil. It feels to me more like a comforting psalm after a trauma, after the tough stuff of life. We know this because we recite this scripture most often at funerals and memorial services.
These psalms were originally songs sung by people after Exodus, after they left their life in slavery, wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, then made it to the Promised Land. They came into their own as a kingdom of Israel through David, Solomon, and others. They wrote these Psalms to sustain them in the midst of all these transitions, of all these tragedies, of all these celebrations. And these songs helped do the hard work of reorientation in a new place.
The Psalms were songs that helped them with their transitions. They are the work of the people, the creative response to God’s presence and power.
So the challenge for us today is, as inheritors of this same tradition, is how are we helping each other reorient? There’s a lot of need for people to walk alongside one another through three difficult transitions.
First, We live in a highly mobile society, especially for my Generation X and younger. We see this in the steady stream of folks who attend for a time, then move away. Or the folks who are sent to us by other Methodist churches–Donna and I get notices from other pastors regularly letting us know of awesome people they are sending our way–or warning us. Or in your own life where coworkers, neighbors, and longtime friends move away and new ones arrive. Every person in this room is either transitioning between places, or has been here and seen everyone else move. How are we doing the work of reorientation for newcomers in our midst, and how do we prepare them for when they leave so that the next landing won’t be quite as hard? And if you are the person who has moved around a lot, how are you feeling sustained and cared for? Are you asking for help? If we are a people who believe in hospitality, we need to practice it for others, and ask for it for ourselves when we need it.
We also live in the constant presence of illness and death. These times of trauma and trial affect us all, whether it is our friends and classmates who seem to pass away one a month, or caring for our parents in their advanced age. Each time we restructure our life around care for someone, they either get better and we restore back to the previous routine, or they pass away and it’s harder to find the way to a new routine. Or something happens to you or a loved one and it turns into a chronic illness or injury. We experience these events as trauma, as events that shake us to our core.
Professor Shelly Rambo from Boston University School of Theology reflects on trauma in this way in her book Spirit and Trauma
In the aftermath of a traumatic event, practices and ways of life that people knew before trauma can never be fully recovered and restored as they once were. Instead, forms of life must now emerge with death as a shaping force. Of all the capacities lost in the experience of trauma, the loss of imagination is perhaps the most devastating. For trauma healing to happen, the capacity to imagine one’s life beyond a radical ending, to imagine life anew, must be restored.
For a people of the Psalms, when we need reorientation, we turn to the arts. This church is full of artsy folks, from the choir, to the photographers, to the sewers, to the artists, painters, musicians, silk dyers, creative writers. Whatever you want to learn to be or do, there’s someone here that is doing it. Finding that creative outlet and a companion to help along the journey is a gift waiting to be given in this space. If we are a people who believe in presence and being with people, we need to practice it, and we can practice it through the arts and the ways how we imagine something new through tough times.
Finally, we live in the constant reorientation in our beliefs and what we believe about God. Both of the first two transitions lead to this one. When we move from somewhere else, from some other faith community or usual circle of people, our faith is challenged or new questions come up. When we go through a life transition, we question our beliefs about healing, God’s goodness, heaven, hell, and other questions. And we are tempted to work through them alone. As a pastor, one of my primary concerns is how do we reorient folks away from an isolated-individual faith life and toward a commitment to and identification with an organized religious community, here or elsewhere? Folks who have chosen a faith tradition believe we can only heal from our trauma in community and with one another. If we are a people who seek a robust faith, a living faith that grows and emerges and retreats along with our every breath and with every moment that takes our breath away, we need to be people who are open to those raw conversations of faith, who don’t shut them down, but invite them and pursue them.
The shaping of a new orientation requires discipline and fidelity to these values of hospitality, presence, and openness. We may not be writing Psalms in response to God, but we may be creating a great deal of other ways to help one another through this mess.
In closing, we have so much in common with the Psalms, but also with the early Disciples who followed Jesus. Talk about people who knew a bit about transitions. They were called to follow him from their fishing boats and families, they did for a tumultuous few months or years, Jesus was captured, crucified, buried, resurrected, and ascended, and they were sent out beyond their borders to bring the Gospel to new places–and all of them, to die doing that work. There were a few moments that needed reorientation as they saw their world get much, much bigger.
As folks who want to know more about Jesus, as folks who seek to be Disciples of Jesus Christ or learn what that means, we often seek this after a time of transition, after the world doesn’t seem to make much sense and we know there’s something more. One of the more interesting types of Bibles that has come across my desk over the years is one that looks more like a magazine. Full color glossy photos that interpret the text. When we get to the book of Acts, the stories of how the Disciples reoriented themselves after Jesus’ death, they chose this image. In two months, I’ll be able to project this and you can see it a little easier. It shows the Disciples as a group of folks playing rugby and they all are missing limbs: arms, legs, feet. And yet they are having the time of their lives playing the game as wounded people.
We are the walking wounded in this world. We know loss and trauma. We know joy and resilience. We are constantly in flux between these states of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. And we know we cannot restore back to a previous point in time. We cannot go back. We can only seek steady ground in a new land.
In our reorientation, as people of a lot of faith or very little, we see how God is present through everything, even those times when we feel abandoned by God.
My hope for you is that you find ways to connect with one another and help each other through the transitions of life. That if you are in transition, you reach out and ask for help. And that whatever reorientation you are going through, whether it is fresh or longtime coming, that you know God is with you, through the valley of the shadow of death, and in the times when goodness and mercy are evident. Glory be to God. Amen.