Telling the stories that change us

Growing up, I used to think I needed a better testimony. It’s no good to just say you grew up a pastor’s kid and kind of always knew God.  I would simmer with righteous jealousy whenever I heard someone really lay it out there, drug addict and homeless, and God saved them from all that and gave them a new start. Or filthy rich, self-serving lawyer who met Jesus and gave it all up to go into youth ministry.  God, of course, is capable of saving people from all sorts of things. Their things just seemed way more interesting, and way more important to be saved from, than mine.

This is our last unit with the Psalms – what Brueggemann calls, "Psalms of New Orientation." In many ways, these are the testimony Psalms. We started the summer with Psalms of Orientation – which praise the reliability of God’s goodness and the order of creation. Then we moved into Psalms of Disorientation – those prayers that invite us into our experience when all trust in God’s goodness and the world’s dependability and order crumbles. 

Now we come to Psalms of New Orientation.  In some ways they are a return to where we began, except that after disorientation there is no going back.  These prayers of the specific goodness of God who saved them from specific trouble, prayed by those who’ve been through death and come out the other side through no fault, or power, of their own. And they give God complete credit for it all.  These are testimony songs.

There is this inexplicable moment in the Psalms of Disorientation, when the Psalm goes from anguish and despair suddenly to gratitude and effusive praise for God’s salvation.  Sometimes that’s because the person or community is healed from sickness, released from bondage, defeated an enemy army, or some other clear, “give me the microphone I’ve got a testimony” type of redemption has occurred.  
Other times the circumstances don’t actually change at all –their reputation isn’t suddenly repaired or their power returned to them, but something has shifted.  They are brought from oppression to freedom, even in the midst of a difficult situation.  
In either case, the credit goes to God.  And what is called for in the moment is gratitude.

These are songs of grace.  Psalms of new orientation can’t come on their own.  They are only the new life after the death, the new story after the old.  They are what is born after what has been lost.  A different kind of trust, a new kind of faith-  one that has been tested and formed, let go and given back as a gift.  Many are directly related to struggles in the own Psalmists’ lives. But many look back to specific acts of God’s deliverance generations earlier, such as God bringing their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt five hundred years before. Retelling God’s faithfulness then becomes a way to celebrate and recognize God’s faithfulness now.  

 “I waited patiently,” our Psalm begins, and God saved me
God is the one who acts.  And what we call “waiting patiently” may not have looked so patient at the time. We’ve seen the first half of some of these and it looks a lot more like arguing and blaming and cajoling and begging than patient waiting.  This is like a little kid throwing a tantrum at the store, wanting only to be home, and when it’s all done and he is safely at home, he might say, Mommy brought me home.  I knew all along that she would.

Of course, looking back, we are much more sure that God will act than we might have felt in the moment, but that is our prerogative.  We get to say, “I knew God would do it, and God did.”  That doesn’t make us liars.  It makes us changed.  
The action of God is so powerful and transformative that not only does it change the present and gives us a new future, it changes the past too.  God’s grace is a time traveler; God’s intrusion reframes the narrative.  The action of God was coming all along, even if I couldn’t see it. I waited patiently and God delivered me.  After we have come out the other side, the story that has changed us changes.  

Let me give you an example of this. While I’ve had a lot of wonderful jobs, and plenty of tolerable jobs, I have also had two jobs in my life that sucked the life out of me.  One of them was while Andy was a Ph.D. student and I was the sole breadwinner.  They were both difficult and draining.  I felt trapped - my soul slowly being sapped.  I might say it in a Psalm as,I struggled through frustration and confusion, not knowing my purpose or contribution, but God saved me.  I was a patient and willing recipient of God’s grace.  
Now I wasn’t, actually, at the time, either patient or particularly receptive.  I was impatient and miserable, and I felt stuck.   But looking back at these things, we can say, “I trusted God and God delivered me,” even when it happens the other way around: God delivers us and we learn we can trust God to do so.
Because not only did God deliver me from those places, by my either quitting or getting fired, and not only did God give me ways to make money to support us where I felt happier and freer, but also, it turns out, I received valuable wisdom and meaningful growth from having suffered through those two jobs.  
Truly, not a week goes by that I don’t directly apply skills or insights from one or the other of those experiences. God used them to make me a more genuine human, a more attentive noticer, a more intentional leader, and a pastor who knows that whatever good happens here among us is because of God and not me.  Knowing this makes me far less likely to hang my own worth on how “well” the church is doing, which is much better for you all too.  
So my Psalm of new orientation about this would probably end with something like, I praise you, God! You are relentless about redemption! Praise the Lord, who uses everything in our lives, and doesn’t let even a single drop of it go to waste.

If, as our last round of Psalms taught us, questioning God’s goodness is a valid and vital part of faith, then so is accepting it, celebrating it, and telling about it when you see it and feel it.  It doesn’t stop with the asking, or the saving, or even with the praising, it must come full circle – others must know the truth of your life- the story of your being saved.  We don’t just belong to God, we also belong to each other. Which brings us back to testimony.

Your story is part of the story of God.  It is the story not of one who did it all on their own, nor is it the story of one who lost it all.  It is the story of one who has been saved. Saved by God. Given a new life, new beginnings.  
When you speak of your salvation to others, your humanity that has been lost, overlooked, starved, dead, trapped in the desolate pit, stuck in the miry bog – it is reestablished. Your place is restored, your voice is remade. These Psalms remind us we are no longer defined by our striving or our struggle, but by our participation with Christ in God’s life. 

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, I once was lost but now I’m found!
You put a new song in my mouth, O God, a song of praise and thanks!

But I’m not talking about just a one time conversion experience, rehearsed and rehashed to compare who got the better before and after photo.  There is not just one Psalm of New Orientation.  God doesn’t just save us once.  This happens over and over, throughout our lives.  “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end.  They are new every morning.” (Lamentations 3:22-23) 

We all have testimonies. We all have Psalms of new orientation inside us.  Many, many of them.  We just don’t know how to sing them, or haven’t thought to.  
We have all been saved by the intervention of a God who leans in close and hears our cries.  But we don’t always recognize it.  And even if we do, we rarely either give God praise or tell others what God has done for us. 

Maybe we’re afraid it’s bragging, or could jinx our good fortune, or isn’t as impressive as a story as it ought to be.  Maybe we’ve been more on the lookout for things like dumb luck, or our own prowess and skill, and haven’t learned how to give God credit- or feel silly or naive doing it.  I suspect mostly it's that we are just moving so fast in this life we don’t stop to notice the hand of God; we're out of practice recognizing it, and expressing the gratitude we feel.

Let’s do it anyway. Let’s assume, like the Israelites did, like David did, that God is involved in it all.  Let’s imagine God is always more present, more available, more engaged, more invested, than we can conceive of.  
Let’s practice with each other waiting patiently when we’re in the pit, and when we’re delivered out of it, rejoicing unabashedly and telling about it to all who will listen.  
And let’s practice listening and receiving each other’s stories of deliverance, being the people who believe you when you say you experienced God. We will be the people who celebrate when you experience life out of death, because we know this is real, and because it points all of us back to the truth of our belonging to God and each other that can only come from God.

Sometimes we might do this with our day or with our week, look for God’s action to express gratitude.  But like the long gaze back of the Israelites, what it might do for us to look back at our lives – ten years ago, let’s say, or twenty, or forty even, and recognize some of the times that God saved us? 
Can you seek out a time in your own story when you felt lost, or stuck, or dead, and newness came, God intervened, hope was born where there was none, and quite apart from anything you could have cooked up?
Can you see where you might have been heading one way and you were led another way instead?
Were you saved from a toxic relationship? 
Given a new start after an illness or injury took away what you thought made you you?  
Did you find yourself in a new place where you didn’t know anyone, and kind and wonderful people came into your life?  
Did a rejection from the school you had your heart set on, or the job that was perfect for you, mean you ended up in exactly the right place that you may never have chosen otherwise?  
Did the pain over losing a spouse, or a child, threaten to swallow you whole and shut you down for life, but somehow, now, you are living, even with joy?  
Were you lost in addiction and released from its grip and every day keep choosing that freedom?  
Did you make a choice that caused great pain to others, and later find forgiveness and a new start?
Were you reunited with a long-lost childhood friend, or reawakened to a discarded passion or interest you got to pursue later in life?  
There is no end to the form these stories of God’s faithfulness and saving can take.  As the Psalmist says, You have multiplied, O Lord my God,
   your wondrous deeds and your thoughts towards us;
   none can compare with you.
Were I to proclaim and tell of them,
   they would be more than can be counted.

Let me be clear that celebrating God’s deliverance doesn’t mean we are saying everything in our life is great right now. This Psalm itself veers back into pleas for help.  Speaking out about what God has done for you in the past in no way undermines a fresh experience of God’s absence, or the need for God’s intervention again in your life. 
This is the paradoxical faith of the Israelites, that they can sing praises for God’s faithfulness in the past, even while begging God to please be faithful now.  It is, in fact, a basis for their pleas.  
So if that is where you are now, in a place of struggle or anger with God, I invite you to do two things.  One, read the rest of this Psalm.  Pray with it this week.  The Psalms are filled with words to bring you into your experience where God can meet you.  This prayerbook has been used by people like us for two thousands years to help us plant our feet and face God with whatever we’ve got. 
But the second thing I invite you to do is to take this moment to look back on your life and seek out times of God’s salvation.  Look for stories – your own stories – that show you who God is and what God does.  

And then we’re going to tell them.  We are going to practice it now: the noticing, the thanks, the telling and the receiving of these testimonies.  Let us sing a new song.
We did this together in worship on September 1.  
You can do this at home with these prompts:

I was…
Then God…
I praise the Lord, who…

Try thinking of a half dozen or so.  
Share them with someone. 
Share them here in the comments, if you’re willing.

This is the fourth of a four part series on the spirituality of the Psalms.  
You can read the rest here: 
Part 1 - A life well-lived
Part 2 - Starting and ending this way
Part 3 - Praying the dangerous ones 


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