With an hour’s drive ahead I pulled up Google on my iPhone – on the hunt for a scintillating audio to keep me company.
You might find it hard to believe, but I typed “Walter Brueggemann sermons” into my search bar. An Old Testament scholar extraordinaire, Brueggemann offers brilliant and innovative insight into ancient texts that continues to dazzle me. This was no exception.
He told the story of a young woman who attends his church, bound to a wheelchair, unable to speak, fed through a tube, and completely dependent upon caregivers. He pondered what she must think about on Sunday mornings. Week after week of sermons, liturgy, and ritual – none of which she can talk about or participate in, at least as others around her do. In this context, he then read Psalm 31: 9-15,
positioning her as the psalmist.
Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
my soul and body with grief.
My life is consumed by anguish
and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction,
and my bones grow weak.
Because of all my enemies,
I am the utter contempt of my neighbors
and an object of dread to my closest friend —
those who see me on the street flee from me.
I am forgotten as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery.
For I hear many whispering,
“Terror on every side!”
They conspire against me
and plot to take my life.
I can imagine Brueggemann is right: this must be how this young woman feels so much of the time. And though I don’t begin to understand her plight, I know my own version of these emotions. So do you. Different circumstances, but no less acute, our complaints are allowed and legitimate.
This psalm reminds us that it is normal and even acceptable to articulate such a dirge; to express exactly how we sometimes feel – to a god of our own understanding who can handle it. Indeed, in the face of such injustice and ache, the divine is often the only one who can handle it – and us – raw honesty, complete candor, no holding back.
This, in and of itself, was worth the sermon and the drive. But Brueggemann continued, turning the corner in the psalm and drawing his listeners attention to the “disruptive conjunction” that occurs after the litany of frustration, fear, pain, and emotion; one small word that changes everything:
But I trust in you, Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hands…
Yes, there is much that threatens to destroy, but…
Yes, there is injustice, but…
Yes, there is heartbreak, but…
Yes, there is misunderstanding, but…
Yes, there is sickness and sorrow and sadness, but…
Yes, there is anxiety and worry, but…
But…my times are in your hands.
This is what changes the psalmist’s perspective. This is what changes our perspective – about ourselves, about those around us, about our world. Not a dismissal or diminishment of any or all that threatens to overwhelm; certainly not a dismissal or diminishment of a young woman’s wheelchair-bound existence. But one simple conjunctive that disrupts lament with something else; someOne else.
The but changes everything.
Is it that simple? Does just saying it make it so? Is it true even if belief is less than rock-solid? Is it enough to repeat the words like mantra without the accompanying feelings?
I do not know. Here is what I do know:
I’d rather cling to even the most doubt-laden and insincere repetition of that but…than to let go of faith and trust.
To hope-to-believe that my times are in the divine’s hands (and my ever-changing definition/experience of such) changes how I act, how I choose, how I behave, how I love, how I live. And that is enough. At least for today.
The last verse of Psalm 31 says this:
Be strong and take heart,
all you who hope in God.
No if’s, and’s, or but’s about it: may it be so.