Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Seeking Stability

I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart (Psalm 138:1)

I’m not stable.

That’s not a psychological assessment or medical diagnosis, it’s a biblical truth. The Bible is quite clear that a double-minded man is unstable in all that he does (James 1:8). I’m afraid that’s me: Double-minded and thus unstable, at least for this week.

This week I’m trying to live with the story of Job, mining the opening chapter of that perplexing story for a singular clear message to speak on Sunday. The story of Job is unnerving and dark. This man is plunged into the deepest kind of suffering: the loss of his family, financial ruin and the loss of his business, and eventually the loss of his health. He ends up sitting in the dirt, scraping his flesh with a shard of pottery. That’s too much for us and we don’t know what to do with it. We turn our faces.

At the same time, every morning this week I have the opportunity to rummage the book of Psalms and pull together a few words about praise. The Psalms end with a crescendo of praise, reveling in God’s creative power and redemptive love. Since the Psalms end with praise it seems only right that a series of reflections on the Psalms end the same way. So praise it is for the remainder of the week.

It should be fairly obvious why my mind is divided, pulled one way by the words of praise and then another by pictures of suffering. It’s hard to get our minds around the praise of God and the anguish of people. Majestic chords reverberate above while melancholy strains echo here below. The dissonance is unbearable.

The bible, especially the Psalms, don’t merely encourage us to praise God. Praise is commanded. Do it. Praise the Lord. We’re willing, but pain makes it hard. We see the story of Job lived out again and again in so many ways. There’s a good chance you’ve lived that story yourself. How do we hold praise and suffering together – not simply in our thinking, but in our living? How do we live honestly in this world and still respond to God with praises?

The answer – or at least an important clue - to that question is found not in philosophical speculation, but in the text of the book of Psalms itself. As we spend time with these prayers we begin to notice that praise is possible in the midst of suffering.

It’s not unusual for a Psalm to give voice to deep distress and disturbing questions in one moment and then blurt out a word of praise to God in the next. It’s sounds a little strange to us, but it’s common in the Psalms. Psalm 13 is an example: five blunt questions are followed by three calls for help – and then a final sentence of praise. Where did that come from?

Dr. Steve Hayner, the newly appointed President of Columbia Theological Seminary, maintains that the essence of praise in the Psalms is found in the way those who suffer keep moving toward God, taking steps toward God in every circumstance. The Psalmists insist on dealing with God in all things, even their suffering. That’s why all of the Psalms, even the complaints, are called “Praises.”

This is a powerful and important insight. Praise is not an emotion. Praise is not even a type of happy language or God-talk. Praise is about the direction of your life, even in experiences of great affliction. To praise is to keep dealing with God, living life God-ward in all things.

How have suffering and praise mingled in your life experience?

I want to praise you with my whole heart and my whole life, O Lord. I want to move toward you with all that I am and all that I experience: when my cup is filled to overflowing and when it’s empty, when I’m at my best and when I’m at my worst, in the pleasures you give to me and in the pains as well. I will praise you with my whole heart, stable and steadfast by the help of your Spirit. Amen.

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