Sunday, April 21, 2024

Receiving What's Difficult

  

 The first funeral I ever did was for a man I did not know.  I was a 24-year-old chaplain at a large, urban, trauma 1 hospital in New Jersey, paged awake in my bunk in the hospital basement for a man who had been on a meal and smoke break from his night shift factory job, who died from a heart attack sitting in his car.

When his two adult daughters arrived at the hospital, I was the one to bring them into the ER room to see their dad’s body.  When they saw me the first thing they did was assert emphatically that their dad was not religious, and neither were they.  I told them that didn’t matter; I was just there so they were not alone, and we could stay together in the room with him as long as they wanted.  

For the next two and a half hours, I listened as they told me stories about their father. They held each other and wept, slapped their knees laughing over some irreverent thing he’d said or done, saying he died exactly as he would’ve wanted with his fast food and cigarette in his hand. They stood and gazed at his face, wept again and told more stories.  

Time stood still for a while in that windowless room.  When they were ready to leave, the sun was just peeking over the rooftops of the awakening city. They hugged me goodbye and thanked me for the time we’d spent together. Then they left the hospital and went into their world to face their first day living without their dad. 

The following day, the hospital chaplain office received a call: the daughters wanted me to do their father’s funeral, and their only request was that it include the 23rd Psalm.  I puzzled over this, remembering how insistent they had been about not being religious.  

When I arrived to do the funeral, he was lying in the casket dressed in his college sports sweatshirt, his hands grasping a pack of Marlboros resting on his chest.  The eulogies were filled with swearing and irreverence, but when I read Psalm 23 the room was suspended in hushed reverence.  

I left the graveside having pronounced the hope of Christ’s resurrection with my first “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” ringing in my ears, feeling overwhelmed by the sacredness of it all. I was struck by the astonishing gratitude people feel when we hold space for God’s presence – even people who think they don't believe in God. And it was a glimpse into the solace offered by these words people all over the world have prayed since King David wrote them 3000 years ago, words Jesus himself took comfort in a thousand years later, reciting with his own siblings, parents and community.

Most of us don’t have much scripture memorized, but I would wager many of us here could recite at least some of the 23rd Psalm.  And chances are, we each have a handful of memorable, resonant moments that involve this Psalm. 

Between Easter and summer, we are spending time exploring the human work of simply receiving life—something increasingly challenging in our fast-paced, digital age where we think it’s our job to make things happen, and to control everything. In reality, this life is a gift from God--this one life we have been given, the one we are in right now, the life we share with those we are here alongside--and our job is to receive it.  

Lisa helped us think about receiving what is by sharing the story of the risen Jesus meeting the disciples on the beach, amidst the smells of the salty sea and fish cooking over smoky wood, calling the tired, wet, discouraged disciples to come and be fed in the warmth of the sun and the sand where God was waiting to meet them.  She reminded us that resurrection transforms not just the whole world and the trajectory of the future—resurrection claims our ordinary lives for the holy, these lives lived inside these limited, wondrous bodies, from which we experience everything.

This week we are turning our attention to receiving what’s difficult. The things in life we don’t choose and would desperately prefer to avoid. This ranges from the merely uncomfortable to the downright terrible.  And Psalm 23 is a great doorway into this conversation, because Psalm 23 has been holding space for God’s presence in what's difficult for 3000 years.

Psalm 23 falls into what biblical scholars call “psalms of trust.” These Psalms come to be in the midst of some kind of tragedy or crisis that psalmist responds to not with hopelessness or defeat, but, paradoxically, with a cry of trust.  
By using the same verb that is used in twice in scripture for the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, the phrase we often say as, “I shall not want” actually means, “I lack nothing.”  For King David, and for Jesus too, this phrase would have brought to mind that defining period in the Hebrew’s relationship with God where they were formed for trust, to embrace their belonging to God. 

One commentator (Kelly Murphy) explains of the Israelites time in the desert, 

“To be sure, life wasn’t always easy—but it was life. Those forty years might have seen a lot of grumbling and complaining, but they also saw manna free from heaven, the birth of a new generation, and eventual progress to the Promised Land. God cared for the wandering people—and they lacked nothing. 

…The psalm reminds readers about the beauties of living life in the here and now even amid the usual darkness that accompanies day-to-day life.”

For thousands of years, to recite this psalm, to pray this prayer, is to share in the promise that no matter what we are going through, God is accompanying us, protecting us, caring for us, and that God’s goodness and mercy will pursue us (the verb here is this aggressive!), without end, and death is not the great ender of everything - love's grip on us is eternal. 

When Psalm 23 was read today, we heard interspersed within it the lectio divina reflections from this congregation this week three years ago, April 2021, when we were in our own wilderness. Sixteen months into the pandemic, we were meeting for church on screens, sharing show-and-tell videos, and gathering six feet apart on the patio for bonfires. Suspended in a strange unknown, the whole world was wandering in wilderness, in the valley of the shadow of death, with the future uncertain. Yet every day, we were still living life’s beauties. With grumbling and complaining, provision and connection, we were existing in the here and now amid the day-to-day joys and the usual darknesses. And we lacked nothing. 

With various, surprising metaphorical green pastures and quiet waters, with protection and accompaniment, God sustained us, restoring our souls, preparing our tables, overflowing our cups, and through it all, pursuing us relentlessly with goodness and mercy. 

It was right around this time that Jen Rainey wrote a prayer, which is now in my book as a prayer for receiving what’s difficult. Jen had intended to use this prayer at a gathering to mark the anniversary of her cancer diagnosis, but that event wasn’t able to happen.  Instead, the prayer was read six months later at her funeral.
Her prayer is a psalm of trust.  Here is part of it: 

Dear God,
One year ago, this day taught me the lived definition of horror.
It brought me to my knees.
There was begging and pleading.
Fear, sadness, confusion, and anger
flooded in and enveloped our visions of the future. 

It felt like there was no escape. 

Why, God, does this type of pain exist in the world?
 Why do beautiful things get ripped away or slowly, painfully destroyed?
Why can’t I go back to what was? 


Breathe in the breath of the life you have now. 
Let the tears of mourning cleanse your spirit
so your inner world may be gentle and blessed. 
Feel the ground beneath your feet, 
that same ground that you fell to on your knees and face, 
holding you today.
Let the fears and grief arise, 

and see that you are not alone—
we share this human suffering. …

 
She goes on to quote Psalm 139, and ends with these words: 
 
On this day, we remember.
We wonder what is coming.
We let go of the past.
We gather to better feel you in this moment,
to experience the ways that you
were, and are, and will be 

with us and for us 
when our worst fears come true. 
 
In their darkest valley, each morning and night Jen and Brian logged onto zoom with Pastor Lisa and me, and every Sunday with a whole group of us, to simply be together and bear together what alone is unbearable. Praying together each morning and night, we lived the trust of Psalm 23, as real trust acknowledges honestly what is: our suffering, our quiet ordinary living, the small joys, the hovering dread, the tiny reprieves of rest, the unquenchable terrors, and in and through it all, the unceasing presence of God. 

Likewise, 24 years ago, in the deep night of a windowless ER room in New Jersey, those two daughters and I walked into the valley of the shadow of death, and it became holy ground. Before dawn, Christ, the good shepherd, who meets us when we are with and for each other, met us there. We did not say his name, nor did we address him directly. But the presence of the risen Jesus was palpable.  By being together in what was difficult, impossible, suspended in the kind of space where tears, stories, anger, laughter and anything else that might arise is welcome, and so fear is driven out, these daughters found themselves doing what we never think we will be able to do—they were receiving life just as it was, the horror and truth of it, while love held them up. 

The Lord is our shepherd – we lack nothing.
The Lord is our shepherd. We lack nothing.
And, no matter what and always, and beyond time’s conclusion, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 

Amen. 

This is Part 2 in a series on Receiving This Life. Read Part 1: Receiving what is, by Lisa Larges.  
Coming up: Receiving what God is doing, receiving what God has already done, and receiving what will be.

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