September 1, 2019

 “These Things I Remember”

Psalm 42-43

 

Some of you are aware that Paula and I just got back from a vacation. We had a wonderful time about 2 hours north of Victoria, B.C. at a hotel and spa in a town called Courtenay. Among other things, we got to go out in a Zodiac boat and encounter Humpback whales and Pacific White-Sided dolphins. We had a wonderful time up north of the border. Then we came back, and I had a bit of a staycation, while Paula worked a couple of nights at the hospital.

 

The final part of our journey was a trip to the Oakland Coliseum to see the A’s play the Giants. This was a special game for a few reasons. First, the Coliseum was a special place for Paula and me- we both attended games together while we were dating, and even had a small season ticket package for a couple of years when we were first married. Second, it would be the only game we would be able to attend this season. Third, it turns out that there was a reunion that day of the world championship team from 1989 when the A’s swept the Giants in 4 straight games to take home the World Series trophy.  Of course, as we all remember, that series was interrupted by the Loma Prieta earthquake, October 4, 1989. Seeing the old team on the field took both Paula and me back to that time in our lives. As we look back, both of us felt that somehow, in experiencing the earthquake (for we were at a youth worker seminar in San Francisco when the quake hit) it felt as if somehow we got bumped to an alternate timeline. Things didn’t turn out in our lives quite as we expected.

 

Paula was pregnant at the time with our first child. I was struggling as a full-time youth director at a church in the Bay Area with an interim pastor at my first full-time call. He was not a fan of my ministry and wanted me out. So, I began to set my sights on attending seminary at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Our first child Sarah was born the following June, and her life was complicated from the moment she took her first breath. To this day, we don’t quite know what happened to her prior to being born. After some initial testing, she was transferred to Oakland Children’s Hospital. We spent the next 4 and ½ months taking trips down there daily, visiting her in the Neonatal Intensive care units, spending time when we could at the Ronald McDonald Family house, trying to understand what our child was up against.

 

It was during this overwhelming time of upheaval that we transitioned to seminary. Over the next 19 months, we had our daughter home with 24-hour nursing care. Yet there were a few trips back to the hospital. Eventually, insurance stopped paying for nursing care, and we lost our round the clock care for her. We struggled with whether or not we could even finish going through seminary-Paula working full time to help pay for school, and me carrying a full class load and working part-time. We managed through it all, and then Sarah died in January of 1992. It was not long after that very difficult day that we learned that the church at which I had served as youth director, and who had decided to support us financially stopped sending us support checks without letting us know. And, when my wife went to let the seminary financial aid office to let them know about our financial mess, she was told that we no longer qualified to be in “Family housing” because we were no longer a family, and would need to move elsewhere soon. To say that time period in our lives was overwhelming is an understatement. A lot of those overwhelming moments came back to us as we saw that World Series team from 1989 down on the field. Despite reliving some of those difficult moments, it was great to see some baseball and have a dog and a beer.

 

There are times in life that are just like that- overwhelming. First one thing happens, then something else right on top of it. In fact that old saying, “Bad things often come in threes” I find to be true more often than not. As I look back upon those times of struggle in my own life, there were often multiple targets of hardship, all of them daunting, all of them suddenly at once. In such times- when a loved one becomes sick, ends up in the hospital or dies; When our own health becomes an issue and we find ourselves suffering; when finances are stretched to the limit; when relationships fall apart; when we struggle with depression or some other mental health issue- during such times, we may wonder where God is, and why God would allow our lives to implode.

 

That is what today’s psalms are all about. Psalms 42 and 43 are psalms of lament, psalms about life imploding, and are actually believed by most Biblical scholars to be one psalm together, separated at a later point for liturgical purposes in the temple. Although many psalms are attributed to David, this one isn’t. The title of the psalm says, “ To the choirmaster. A Maskill of the Sons of Korah.”The choirmaster is believed to have been the director of the temple musicians. A maskil was either an artful or instructional song. The Korahites were a group of temple singers, descended from Korah, the cousin of Moses. They were an important branch of the singers of the Levite priesthood (2 Chronicles 20:19). And though no known musical notation from the time exists, some scholars believe the Hebrew alphabet itself stood for certain musical notes. That possibly oral tradition was then picked up by the Masorites in the 7th century A.D. when vowels were placed underneath the Hebrew lettering. And today, when you hear Torah or the Prophets read in a modern synagogue, singing the text is often part of that presentation.

 

Who was the author, if not David? This psalm of lament was for an individual who was in exile, far from home, far from the temple. We have a clue as to what the circumstances of his exile may have been. The “ungodly nation” referred to may have been the Arameans of Damascus. We know historically that the Arameans attacked Judah several times, and that the Korahites had been assigned to several cities in Judah, the kingdom of the north in the early 9th century BC. The author of the psalm writes of an intense longing to return to the sacred places of God’s divine presence and remembers past pilgrimages to the temple and times of worship and praise.

 

We may even have a clue as to exactly WHERE this psalm was written, or at least where the psalmist imagined himself to be. In 42:6, we hear that the psalmist remembers God from “Mt. Mizar.” This sacred mountain is located on the western Jordan mountain range and is right by the source of the Jordan River. In verse 7, the psalmist writes, “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of Thy cataracts.” The waterfalls of the upper Jordan river call aloud to one another in noisy decent. These roaring waters may be the metaphor for the psalmist, whose life is in churning turmoil. In the midst of this turmoil, the psalmist longs for the presence of God.

 

For this faithful Hebrew singer from the temple, his life depends upon God. His prayer is like the braying of a deer over a stream that has run dry. The body cannot live without water. The soul cannot live without God, especially in time of turmoil. In such difficult and dark times, our souls thirst for God. Theologian James Mays says, “Many may not understand the thirst that disturbs and drives their living, but it is there because the human soul was created to correspond to God.”

 

The author writes of an intense longing to return to the sacred places of God’s divine presence and has memories of past pilgrimages to the temple and times of worship. He has been weeping day and night- long, uninterrupted weeping. His Aramean captors insult him constantly asking, “Where is Your God?” The only relief from this constant weeping and taunting is a recollection from the past. The psalm is a back and forth struggle for hope in what appears to be a hopeless situation. Protestant Church Reformer John Calvin says, “ The psalmist here represents himself as if he formed two opposing parties.”

 

One thing is clear about the psalm- the psalmist feels as if he has been forgotten, abandoned by God. Author and Pastor Rick Warren wrote, “God has promised repeatedly, ‘I will never forsake you. But God has not promised, ’You will always feel my presence.’” But then he rallies in the darkness with the repeating phrase, “Why are you cast down O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God for I shall again praise you, my help and my God.” He remembers how God has been faithful to him in past times when his life has been difficult and holds onto a shred of hope while living in the shadows of despair and feelings of abandonment.

 

For some reason unknown to us, there are times in the midst of difficulty when God seems distant. Being at the A’s game reminded me of the story of a famous Giants pitcher by the name of Dave Dravecky. If you remember the story, Dravecky was the pitcher who came back to play baseball after undergoing surgery for a malignant tumor in his pitching arm. It was an incredible story to see him make a comeback on August 10th, 1989, pitching 8 innings and defeating the Cincinnati Reds 4-3. He battled back from cancer and stood upon the mound again, getting a victory for the Giants. However, at his next start in Montreal, after pitching three innings of no-hit ball, right in the middle of a pitch, Dravecky broke his pitching arm and collapsed upon the mound. His broken arm was a result of the return of his cancer, which weakened his bones. Eventually, Dravecky’s arm and shoulder had to be amputated to stop the cancer from spreading, ending his successful career in baseball. During this difficult time, Jan Dravecky, Dave’s wife experienced clinical depression, and many of their friends they counted upon withdrew.

 

The Draveckys understand psalm 42 and 43, because they lived them out in real life. In those times of life being overwhelming and feeling God’s distance, Dravecky wrote, “Looking back, my wife Jan and I have learned that the wilderness is part of the landscape of faith, and every bit as essential as the mountaintop. On the mountaintop, we are overwhelmed with God’s presence. In the wilderness, we are overwhelmed with God’s absence. Both places should bring us to our knees; the one in utter awe. The other, in utter dependence.”

 

Those times in the wilderness are difficult, yet also life-transforming. Another thing we experienced while on vacation up in British Columbia- We heard a very meaningful and powerful conversation about grief on our car radio on NPR, as CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper interviewed Late Night talk show host Steven Colbert about his time in the wilderness. Colbert, who was raised Catholic and is still living his Christian faith shared that he lost his father and 2 older brothers in a plane crash when he was just 10 years old. He said, “I was personally shattered. In time, though, you learn to reform yourself.” Cooper then asked him about his understanding of faith, suffering, and difficulty in the midst of life. Colbert responded, “It is simply a gift from God to exist. With existence comes suffering. There is no escaping that…What do you get from loss? You get the awareness of other people’s loss, which allows you to connect with that other person, which allows you to love more deeply and understand what it means to be fully human.” Colbert went on to say that, although he wishes he hadn’t gone through times of profound loss and difficulty, those experiences made him the person he is today, and he sees them as gifts from God. Although I would not classify my own experiences of loss and suffering as gifts, I have been changed profoundly by them, and give thanks to God for a fuller awareness of the suffering of those around me. The situations in our lives that stretch our faith the most will be those times of struggle, times when God seems distant and life is overwhelming. They painfully refine us, change us dramatically.

 

In closing, one summer, a number of years ago, I had the privilege of traveling to the upper Northeast corner of Buffalo New York for a pastor’s retreat. The retreat center wasn’t far from Niagara Falls, and I really wanted to go and visit this amazing wonder of God’s creation. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any time for sightseeing, although I did get a long glimpse of the Niagara River. The mighty Niagara River plummets some 180 feet at the American and Horseshoe Falls. Before the falls, there are violent, turbulent rapids. Further upstream, however, where the rivers current flows more gently, boats are able to navigate. Just before the Welland River empties into the Niagara, a pedestrian walkway spans the river. Posted on the bridge’s pylons is a large sign for all boaters which says, “DO you have an anchor?” followed by, “DO you know how to use it?” Faith, like an anchor, is something we need to know how to use when life gets rough, the waters of difficulty rage about us, and God seems distant. Faith was an anchor for the psalmist while his life was in the darkness, and helped him remember as theologian Raymond Edman says, “Never doubt in the dark what God told you in the light.” That faith can be an anchor for us as well in time of trial, time of great suffering and difficulty. We too can have hope, even when our souls are parched, our adversaries taunt us, and tears are our food day and night. Alleluia. Amen.

 

Right now, my life is in a place of abundance- Our daughter has just graduated from high school and is heading off to SOU to study nursing. I am privileged to serve as your pastor here at this church. Paula loves her job at the hospital. We have a wonderful place to call home, and I’ve just returned from a very blessed and profoundly meaningful time away. And yet, I know with existence comes suffering. Many of us have lived through times when our lives have been just like psalms 42-43. In looking back on such times in the spiritual wilderness, I wrote a song. The words of this song are based upon some of those experiences of suffering and difficulty, remembering God’s faithfulness in past times, and are also based upon psalms 42 and 43.

 

THESE THINGS I REMEMBER

(Based on Psalm 42-43) by Dan Fowler

 

My soul is parched for You.     I don’t know what to do, in this darkness.

       I cannot see Your face.            I cannot feel Your grace in my sorrow.

 

These things I remember, as I pour out my soul; How I praised Your name,

               how You made me whole.      

                      I will hope in You, in this deep dark night, till You guide me through with Your shining light.  These things I remember.

 

My rock I need You so. I don’t know where to go in these shadows.

     Your presence is not near, caught in my doubt and fear. Be my refuge.

These things I remember, as I pour out my soul; How I praised Your name,

               how You made me whole.      

                      I will hope in You, in this deep dark night, till You guide me through with Your shining light.  These things I remember.

 

Oh Lord send out Your light, and lead me through this night, to Your dwelling.

Then in joy, I’ll praise Your name, my hope be born again. Oh deliver me.

 

These things I remember, as I pour out my soul; How I praised Your name,

               how You made me whole.      

                      I will hope in You, in this deep dark night, till You guide me through with Your shining light.  These things I remember.

 

I will hope in You my Lord and King   In the darkness now Your song I sing!

         Your love and mercy overflow and deep down in my heart I know... oh yes I know

As these things I remember, as I pour out my soul; How I praised Your name,

how You made me whole.                      

I will hope in You, in this deep dark night, till You guide me through with Your shining light.

These things I remember.

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