A Sure Stay
I used to be a faithful listener to the national news. But it seems that more and more reporting consists of communicating more and more bad news. As a result, I’ve become more of a sporadic listener. Of course, I recognize that this is not a recent trend. Most news has rarely, if ever, been uplifting. The events deemed “newsworthy” are generally traumatic or catastrophic events. Random shootings, the continuing economic crises in the U.S. and Europe, the continuing conflicts in the Middle East all serve as recent examples.
These “bad news” stories are even more difficult to deal with because they are not simply news stories affecting someone else; they are real stories of the everyday realities of people all around me, and including me. Close friends have loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Colleagues struggle to make ends meet, and wonder how they can continue to keep up with the rising costs associated with gas and food. Necessities become negotiable and disappear altogether. For many, these are not simply news stories these are their stories of trying to survive in extraordinarily dark times.
While these particular circumstances are specific to the contemporary context, extraordinarily dark times are sadly nothing new. Even the greatest of leaders in the ancient world were not immune to trouble and despair. As we are told in the Hebrew narratives, David, the great king of Israel, experienced many difficulties throughout his life. And when he experienced trouble, he turned to poetry. Psalm 18, as one example, appears to have been a poem written after the experience of deliverance from national enemies and the current king of Israel, King Saul.
The poetry composed by David expresses his grief and distress in the midst his trials. The imagery he uses is of a near death experience: “The waves of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me; the cords of Sheol surrounded me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the Lord” (2 Samuel 22:5-7a). His distress felt like drowning; being swallowed up by the mighty waves of the sea.
Yet, somehow David believes he will be delivered. In my distress I called upon the Lord. David hopes in God’s deliverance. Even though he feels overwhelmed by powerful forces at work against him, David affirms that “The Lord was my stay. He brought me forth also into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me” (Psalm 18:19).
It is tempting to understand the Lord’s rescue operation as one that restores the equilibrium or status quo to David. As one commentator notes, the psalmists’ chief concern to give thanks to God are not chiefly found in regaining “physical health, or adding more years to life, or by enhancing the life they now enjoy with greater comfort or security. That is a modern conception of life, whose emptiness is eventually disclosed. According to Israel’s way of thinking, life is missed when people do not choose it: ‘See, I have set before you life and death….Therefore, choose life.’”(1) Those who know David’s story know that it continues to be fraught with difficulty and hardship even as he becomes the great king of Israel.
God’s rescue was not simply a return to the “way things were” or always a salve of comfort and ease. To read the poem this way is to miss its main image of the God whose rescue shakes the deepest foundations. “The earth shook and quaked the foundations of the mountains were trembling.” God’s rescue often involves the overturning and upending all the things in which we place our hope apart from God. For the poet David testified: The Lord was his stay. Ultimately, salvation does not come from the things God does for David, or for us. God’s rescue sets one in a broad place opening up new spaces in which we can find room to trust.
Sometimes, God’s rescue involves the deliverance from all the things we think make up true life. As Christoph Barth observes, “[W]hat the psalmists pray for in laments, or thank God for in thanksgiving is the restoration of life that they have lost, or its radical renewal through true life—that is the life that is given through relationship to God.”(2)
When we make God our stay we acknowledge that all other ground is like sand—even those things that appear as a strong foundation. Our notion of rescue is upended. And while we never want to deny that days are often filled with bad news, God can be our stay, open up a broad place where we want more than simply to be rescued and instead desire to become the means of rescue. We can have active hands and feet that swiftly move to help others in times of need, and in times of abundance, with God as our stay. As people living at times in want and in times of bad news, we can renew and restore the lives of others in remarkable ways, inviting them into the broad place where we stand on the ground that is God.
(1) Bernard W. Anderson, ed., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983), 127.
(2) As quoted by Anderson, Ibid., 127.
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