July 2, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
One of the iconic figures of American history, Daniel Boone, was a frontiersman who in the late 1700s helped settle parts of the wilderness that we now know today as Kentucky and Tennessee. Boone wandered over huge swaths of forest land in the Appalachian Mountain range and he blazed a path through the Cumberland Gap that allowed more than 200,000 pioneers to follow after him and settle the town of Boonesborough, one of the first white settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains. In other words, Boone knew his way around the wilderness. It is said that someone once asked Daniel Boone if he had ever been lost during all of those years in the mountains and he replied, “No…. though I may have been a mite confused once for about three or four days.”
Boone’s tongue-in-cheek reply reveals an important world view that is shared by the Psalmist who composed Psalm 30. It is a world view that can help not only 18th century frontiersmen who suddenly find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings but also 21st century Christians who encounter the disorientation that results from unexpected life events. The world view that both Boone and the Psalmist share is that there is an important difference between “being lost” and being “a mite confused about where you are” for a while. Think about what the word “lost” conjures in your head: the word “lost” suggests not only that everything familiar is gone but that there is no way forward, that pursuing any direction will leave you just as lost as you were before. Roget’s Thesaurus lists the synonyms of the word “lost” as “invisible,” “irretrievable,” and “gone.” There is a finality and a hopelessness associated with the word “lost.”
On the other hand, think now about what the phrase, “I was a mite confused,” implies. To be a mite confused about where you are suggests that you know that there is a way forward; you just haven’t found it yet. You trust that given enough time and enough patience and enough work, you can make it out of the unfamiliar wilderness to arrive at the place you need to be.
At the beginning of my sermon series on the Psalms, I said that the scholar Walter Bruggemann has grouped the psalms into three categories. First, he said, there are psalms of orientation which describe the norms of a faithful life and project confidence that a person who follows those norms will experience goodness and success as a result. They are the psalms that would be spoken by the frontiersman who strides into the mountains of Appalachia certain of his way and confident that the path he is following will take him through safely to the other side. We can think of Psalms of orientation as the way in which many of us began our lives in faith believing that if we accepted the presence of Christ in our lives and went to church regularly; if we worked to be good and upright, we would set our lives upon a firm foundation that could not be shaken. Psalms of disorientation, Brueggemann says, however, are the words of lament and distress keened by that same faithful person whose sure foundation is suddenly swept away by tragedy and loss. Or to go back to the metaphor of the frontiersman, the path he is following through the mountains disappears suddenly and he looks around to discover that the familiar landmarks are gone. In a psalm of disorientation, all the psalmist can do is rend the heavens with tears, crying out in the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Psalmist admits his or her fear that they are truly lost — that there is no hope, no way forward, no way out of the wilderness of pain and suffering they are experiencing. And then finally, Bruggemenn says, there are the psalms of reorientation. These psalms describe the faith that emerges after tragedy. The psalmist realizes that he wasn’t truly lost but only “a mite confused for a while” and that in fact, there is still life to be lived and even joy to be had as God leads the psalmist to a new understanding of faith.
Psalm 30 is a psalm of reorientation, and we can hear in its words that progression from orientation to disorientation to reorientation. Verses 6 and 7 — verses of orientation — say, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved,’ By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain…” The psalmist describes that confidence of faith that he experienced initially when everything was going well, but then he goes on to say, “you hid your face; I was dismayed.” Something happened that challenged all of his assumptions about God and faith, and he describes his resulting disorientation: “To you, O Lord, I cried… What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” The psalmist admits that his old view of faith was a kind of quid pro quo deal — “you keep me safe, God, and I will praise you to the people” — but when tragedy strikes, when God doesn’t keep him safe, everything he believed about the purpose of faith is suddenly upended.
“What profit is there in my death?” he keens to the heavens. “I don’t understand what good you are, God, if you can’t keep suffering far from me.”
The psalmist is vague about the circumstances that threw him into the existential wilderness but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to come up with possibilities because we too have experienced the dizzying disorientation of tragic life events. Do you remember the first time that someone you knew died? Maybe you were in high school when a classmate died in a car accident, or maybe it was the death of a grandparent. The recognition that life can stop, and the realization that people you care about might not last forever was startling. And it doesn’t get better as we get older — if anything, the effects of grief and loss on our sense of stability may be more and more profound as our lives become more and more entwined with the lives of others. How do we go on when someone we care about deeply is no longer a part of our everyday reality? Our mental landscape is thrown into confusion; nothing looks familiar anymore, and we wander in the wilderness of our pain.
So too, less horrendous but no less unsettling events can topple the ground beneath our feet: the loss of a job, divorce, a physical ailment, political set-backs in a cause for which you have worked hard, even saying goodbye to your last child as he or she leaves the nest: all of these things can be very disorienting as you wonder how to cope with a world that is no longer familiar, and what good your faith does for you in those changed circumstances.
The Psalmist confronts a disorienting event in his life, but like Daniel Boone, the psalmist chooses not to call himself lost but only “a mite confused for a while.” The psalmist discovers that God can bring him out of the wilderness; that he is not lost is forever and he says at the end of his psalm in verses 11 and 12: “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”
The psalmist comes to realize that he was never lost but only confused for a while as he wrestled with his questions and his pain and gradually came to a new understanding of God, to a healing of heart and spirit. I don’t mean to belittle the powerful emotions of a tragedy by using Boone’s phrase, “a mite confused” as if grief and anxiety, depression and despair are simply small matters that will disappear in a few days. The Bible’s metaphor of wandering in the wilderness for forty years is a more apt description of the powerful disorientation that comes upon the heels of a tragedy, but the psalmist urges us to believe that no matter how dark the darkness seems at this moment, that God can lead us to a new morning. God can lead us to a new way of seeing and a new understanding that will enable us to once again experience moments of love and joy and beauty. This new way of living will require a reorientation of our hearts because God cannot take us backwards to that old orientation we had before the event. God can’t erase the pain and sorrow we have experienced, nor would we really want to. The grief we feel, for example, when someone we loved dies is a precious testimony to the important place that person held in our hearts and so while grief hurts like the dickens, to not grieve would be a betrayal of that love. So too if you lose a job, you can’t just pretend that the skills that you developed over a lifetime don’t matter at all to your identity. Or if you have worked hard for a cause and suffered a major setback, you can’t act as if none of it really mattered anyway. The disorientation that results from these blows is real and to try to return to our former state of being as if the hurt that we are experiencing is just a minor flesh wound is unrealistic and would negate everything that we held dear. What God promises, however, is that God can lead us to a new way of living in which we continue to bear the wounds of the past as precious gifts — testimonies to our love and our self-identity — while leading us forward to new paths of love and beauty and a reconstructed self-identity. Like Jesus who bore still the marks of the nails of the cross in his resurrected body, we too can carry our pain as a testimony of the love that we have experienced and the work we have done while learning to live in a new way.
And we need God to help us with this task because frankly, society is terrible at it. Society is terrible at figuring out how to construct new ways of being when the old ways collapse. Our natural impulse as human beings is instead to try very hard to hold on to the old ways even if the old way are no longer possible.
In 1968, during the chaos of the Democratic Convention in Chicago, people criticized the use of force by police against the protestors. Mayor Richard Daley defended the police by saying, “Get this thing straight once and for all. The policeman isn’t there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder.”
Society is so afraid of the confusion that results when the familiar is gone that it will do everything it can to preserve the old even when the old is no longer healthy or no longer possible. We are so entrenched in the familiar that we cannot even imagine a new way of being without a lot of help.
God promises that, however, that God can help us to see what we can’t even imagine on our own. God can help us to construct a new life when the old one is torn from us, a new life that will continue to bear the wounds of our hearts as precious gifts of that which we held dear while also opening our wounded hearts to new ways of joy, opening our eyes to new ways of seeing, opening the tombs that have imprisoned our spirits so that we can move again among the living. The psalmist urges us to trust God’s ability to bring us to where we need to be and to say in faith not, “I am lost,” but “I am a mite confused and I may be confused for some time to come but I know that my God will show me the way one day.”
I invite you to Christ’s table to eat of the bread of life and drink of the cup of forgiveness so that together we may be healed.