January 21, God alone

God alone

Psalm 62:5-12

This morning’s scripture from Psalm 62, beginning at verse 5, begins with the words, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God.” For God alone…for God alone my soul waits.

Eugene Peterson, in “The Message,” offers this translation: “God, the one and only - I'll wait as long as God says. Everything I hope for comes from God, so why not?” 

“For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God.” Or “God, the one and only - I'll wait as long as God says. Everything I hope for comes from God, so why not?” 

Moving along in the scripture passage, the Peterson translation continues: God is solid rock under my feet, breathing room for my soul; An impregnable castle: I'm set for life. My help and glory are in God – granite-strength and safe-harbor-God -- So trust God absolutely, people; lay your lives on the line for God. God is a safe place to be. Man as such is smoke, woman as such, a mirage. Put them together, they're nothing; two times nothing is nothing. And a windfall, if it comes - don't make too much of it. God said this once and for all; how many times have I heard it repeated? "Strength comes straight from God." Love to you, Lord God! You pay a fair wage for a good day's work!

So, once again, as we continue in this season of Epiphany, the season of discovery, of revelation, for this Sunday’s scripture, we have another passage from the book of Psalms; David is the Psalmist, and in this Psalm, David draws this picture of contact and contrast. Contact: God is our hope, our rock, our help, our glory. God is everything: our safe place, our strength, our source of sustenance.

But then, there is not only contact, but contrast here in the Psalm as well: God is solid, humans are a mirage; God is powerful, humans are vain, unreliable. God is constant, humans are distracted.

There’s this language of God at the center, and humans at the edge; that nothing is solid, reliable, even tangible except for God. God is, and has to be, at the center of all things, says David – at the center of life, at the center of our attention, at the center of our trust and awareness. 

And this kind of thinking is unsurprising when we find it here in a Psalm, because we associate such God-centered thinking with scriptures like these. We expect to find it in the Psalms – this poetry of God-dependence, God-awareness, complete God-trust.

But that’s Psalm-talk. And I want to ask a question that crosses the boundary between Psalm-talk and real life.  It’s this question: In all honesty, is that really the way we shape our world – the way David does with his talk of God-dependence, God-awareness, complete God-trust? Is that the way our spirits speak, the way our lives are focused?  “For God alone my soul waits in silence”?

I suspect that a truthful, self-reflective answer to such a question would be that that’s not us – not most of us, anyway; not most of us and not most of the time; that most likely we honestly aren’t inclined to turn to God alone to seek refuge and deliverance, trusting God at all times.

No. At our best (we would confess) we are people of plan and strategy, of calculation and control, of thoughtfulness and responsibility. While at our worst, we are people of reaction and impulse.

But either way, mostly – and most of the time – we are people who first of all trust in our own ability to make things happen, to get things done, to effect change, to get the ball rolling. “God alone” isn’t usually plan “A”.

God can come along, God can be in our corner if God is willing, but God alone? We have other ideas we’d like to try out first. And we have other resources. And we have other plans.

If that sounds give of hard or harsh, then let me ask this: When you need help or when things go off the rails or when you find yourself in a pinch, what’s your go-to response? What’s you “default setting”? Is it quiet, centering prayer? Is it spiritual waiting? Is it faith-focused thinking?

Or is it digging in your heels, and marshalling your resources, and doing your networking? Is it lashing out at the source of trouble, or making a new plan of action, or fussing and fuming at the unfairness of life? Do you turn to God, to God alone? Or do you try everything else you can think of?  

Look, I get it. We are smart people. We have talents and abilities. We are connected people. We are action people. We admire those who get things done. We have faith, but we are people who smile at the book of James where the writer says “faith without works is dead.” We aren’t waiting around people. We are do-it, take-charge, make-a-difference, self-reliant people. We are people who want to get from here to there.

We don’t like to ask for help, but in a pinch, we’ll do it. But God alone? “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God”? More like God-plus; God plus our resources, plus responsibility, plus commitment, plus good ideas, plus this, plus that. Spiritual waiting and focus and vulnerability and trust? Come on now! Partnership and planning: that’s the ticket, right?

One of the questions to be answered on the congregational profile that we are filling out as a search committee (with your help and input) is this question – well, it’s not exactly a question, but it’s on the form waiting for a response: List the congregation’s goals for the next five years.

We talked about that, item #10 on the form, at the church executive board meeting this past week. And it seemed to me that although we would have liked to have had a solid answer, we recognized that we are more in the midst of negotiating a period of impending change than seeing a clear direction for the future.

And not only that, but we are a little resistant anyway to making the kind of goals that lean hard toward measurable accomplishments. We are clear that we are a church and not a business or an agency. We watch the bottom line, but that’s not all we are thinking about.

So, the kind of goal we would favor might be one like, “find and engage more ministry partners in the local community,” rather than a more “results” or number-oriented one like “double the Sunday morning worship attendance.” Instinctively, we look toward goals that are more qualitative than quantitative.

But still, even with our resistance toward numerical goals, there’s this easy lean toward goals that are about what we intend to accomplish.  We are more likely to choose the language of practicality over the language of spirituality.

With that in mind, I wonder: Does “waiting for God alone” count as a valid “goal” –something one might include in the list of goals for the next five years? I don’t mean that as a smart-aleck kind of comment. I really do wonder. Is this the sort of thing that counts, even if it can’t be counted?

And what does such a thing – waiting for God alone -- even look like? Sure, you can’t measure it in the way that we like to measure things, but what does it even look like? And a question further: If “God alone” is our goal, how do we make it an honest aim, rather than a self-congratulatory cliché?

We have a joke among our church office staff that what it really should say on the church sign out front is this: “We are just a busy church!” And we are! Take a look at the church calendar any day of the week, any week in the month. There are a lot of things going on. We are busy people who belong to a busy church who engage with a busy community who live in a busy culture.

In fact, if I had a nickel for every person who has said to me over the years, “I’m sorry, I know you’re busy…” before they launched into their request or their concern, I’d be a rich man! And in return, when people ask me how I am and how things are going at the church, while I try to avoid the word “busy,” I often find myself saying something like, “Well, things are good, but I have too much on my plate at the moment.  God alone? God…yes…but God plus this, God plus that, this and that and more.

It’s been seven years now since I had my sabbatical, but I remember as clearly as if it was yesterday, the silent retreat I went on to get things started. It wasn’t something I had done before.

At first, I was kind of excited with the empty space and time, the quiet, the outdoor scenes. It took me about a day until the soundtrack in my own head started to slow down, to quiet down. And once that happened, I think I imagined then that if I was just quiet long enough, I would enter new spiritual territory, a place of deeper peace.

But I had a hard time heading in that direction. I remember that instead, by the second or third day, I started to get impatient, even irritable, as the hours went by. Waiting for God is tedious and tiresome, I decided. Silence is kind of lonesome.

Halfway through the week, I wrote this in my journal: “Rained last night; cloudy, misting today. Walked through the woods. Everything is so green. Sleepy morning after the communion service. Silence is most noticeable at meals. David (the director) says the silence isn’t a rule, but a gift. Mostly, I like silence when I am by myself. Often, I even like it in a companionable kind of way when I am doing something with, or just in the company of, someone I know. I prefer it with strangers when we are each on our own journey or doing different things in shared space. But eating with people and no opportunity to know them? You’re sitting there at the table and if you can’t talk, you don’t even want to look at anyone else. I’d rather the opportunity to ask questions: Where are you from? Why are you here? What kind of bird is that – the one that keeps tapping at the window? What is the weather going to be like tomorrow?”

God alone? Does that require me to be alone? Is silence the only pathway? Is waiting the requirement? Do I have to get rid of every other distraction, both within me and around me?

Is that it? Is it the distractions that do me in? Is it the distractions – not just the ones that intrude, but the ones that I can’t help but ask for: Where are you from? Why are you here? What kind of bird is that – the one that keeps tapping at the window? What is the weather going to be like tomorrow?

Maybe it is the distractions. Maybe that’s the problem. Or maybe it’s something deeper. Maybe it goes to questions of commitment, loyalty, priority, even trust. Maybe it goes to a question I don’t even want to ask out loud – the question, “Is God alone enough…for me, for us?” Is God alone enough, or am I always going to be tempted to hedge my bets. Are we always going to be looking around for something else to support us, or (more truthfully), something else to distract us?

We may not want to ask that question aloud – Is God alone enough? – but if we are honest, we must admit that it lurks there inside us. It’s always lurked in the human heart. God knows that; God is not surprised by that. It may even be the reason that the ten commandments start out the way they do.

Do you remember? Here’s the beginning of Exodus 20:

“Then God spoke all these words:  I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, (a distraction?) …you shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Hey people! (God says) I’m the one. I’m the one who rescued you from slavery. Remember that? It wasn’t all that long ago. So, look here. Look at me. I’m the one. I am your God. No one else is. Nothing else is. I am. Hey, look here – stay with me now. Don’t start worshipping, trusting, relying, believing, turning toward anything or anyone else. I am yours and you are mine. Don’t get distracted. Don’t turn away. Don’t forget. If you can’t or won’t stick with me, there will be consequences. If you can or will stick with me, there will be steadfastness in your life – my steadfast love for you. Keep your focus. Keep your focus on me.

Boy that’s hard: keeping our focus, staying steadfast, ignoring all the distractions, trusting when we are so fickle and forgetful. It is hard.

But it’s necessary. You have to have a center point, a place you come back to, a point from which you orient your life. You have to have some place to put your trust without reservation. You have to have a place of confidence and courage and strength and hope.

And where else can that be but in the presence, in the person, of God? Of God alone?

Look, all the distractions aren’t going away. But all the distractions aren’t God. You have to turn away from them and toward God. Invest in that and God pays you back. God pays you back with the things you wanted all along: salvation and strength and steadfast love.

 

That’s what the Psalmist, David, says anyway. Do you believe it?

 

Amen.

 

Benediction: For this week, I hope for a clear and sharp sense of God’s presence and prodding in your life; a Spirit-sense that keeps you aware of your Rock and your Redeemer. Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

January 21, 2018