He took me out of the pit (Psalm 40)
Duncan’s sermon on Sunday was, I think, particularly timely. We are continuing to face difficult and challenging times as we head into winter with our fears about our own health and the health of others close to us, fears about employment and money, fears about our mental well-being at a time when many older people feel isolated and alone. In such times, it is so good to hear the voices of others – down through history and in the present – who have faced profound hardship, and yet have a story to tell of God’s presence and help. (You can listen to the Sunday service, including this sermon, here.)
The passage this morning was Psalm 40, an ancient Jewish testimony to God’s presence, and Duncan augmented this by sharing his own experience of travelling through dark places. In turn, he encouraged us to be story-tellers, encouraging one another through our own witness-statements as followers of Jesus in the valley of the coronavirus.
Here’s the psalmist’s story:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him. (Psalm 40:1-3)
And here’s a lightly-edited version of Duncan’s sermon:
I want to begin this morning by just sharing a story which comes to mind from my own personal experience as I think about Psalm 40, and particularly the notion of ‘waiting.’ (v1) It’s a story and experience which is specific to me, though I have no doubt that for many of you listening and watching you will have your own stories, different stories, but this same reality in terms of the waiting which is reflected in the opening of this psalm.
My experience, my story began on Maundy Thursday of 2011. I was at a family celebration on the island of Skye, and was getting myself organized for leading worship on Good Friday, the following day, travelling back to Inverness for that, when just, completely out of the blue, I had an incredibly powerful viral episode, with very, very high temperatures, and just the most severe of headaches which lasted for several days.
I made it back in the hope of…in fact I actually managed to take the service, not on Good Friday, I just wasn’t well enough, but I stumbled out for Sunday morning because I was actually taking a baptism that morning. I went straight back to bed after that, and I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow probably until about Wednesday.
When the temperature and the headache eased, I just felt absolutely and completely exhausted. Very similar, I think, to what we’re hearing about many of the people who have recovered from COVID, in terms of the description which people talk of of ‘long COVID.’ What I had was almost like a foggy brain and just extreme tiredness and fatigue. The experience really, as I look back on it, was a little bit like this reality of what the Psalmist talks about, being ‘in a pit,’ (vv1,2) thrashing about in mud and mire, trying as it were, desperately because I’m a very activist kind of person, trying to get myself out of this hole of exhaustion and tiredness. But the reality was, I was just completely locked into it. I was way below, at the bottom of this pit of exhaustion and fatigue which really with the weeks was getting far worse rather than anything like better.
And several months later – this was not something that was sorted out in a week or two – several months later – we’re talking maybe, November, when it was April that it first started, the tiredness was showing no sign of easing. In fact, whereas at the beginning of the year I’d been out mountaineering for twelve hours, I was struggling to climb a flight of stairs walk just a few yards. I began to face the prospect that I would never have a normal life again in terms of exercise or work.
And kind of in the darkness of that experience – call it a pit if you like, this morning as we reflect on that metaphor from Psalm 40, you’re kind of asking questions about ‘What’s the meaning of this?’ ‘Where are you God in this?’ ‘Am I destined for this kind of exhaustion and fatigue for the rest of my life?’
Times of the shadow in Christian experience
I’m telling a bit of my own story today as a touchpoint, I hope, in encouraging all of you perhaps to reflect on different ways in which maybe you have felt this kind of pit experience in your life, in shadow places, dark places.
In the words of Richard Rohr, which I think are very prescient in terms of Psalm 40
Life is inherently tragic. And that is a truth which only faith, and not our seeming logic can accept. The bottom line of the Gospels is that most of us have to hit some kind of bottom before we even start the real spiritual journey.
I think sooner or later we all find ourselves in these dark places, these pit experiences, where we feel trapped, where we wonder whether we’re ever going to get out of this cycle of struggle and being stuck, when we wonder what the future holds.
Rescue from, or accompaniment in?
This is where Psalm 40 begins – ‘I waited patiently……’ (V1) It’s a psalm that’s looking back, telling a story about somebody’s past experience. The psalmist is speaking from a perspective of faith, he’s speaking about a God who has lifted him out of the pit and taken him through the dark times. It’s a faith story.
But I also want to say this before we move forward. I want to look at this story from the perspective that not everything works out well in life, not everything ends up just being perfect in terms of our faith story.
That’s not my story. Nine years later I still carry quite a significant scar in terms of struggling with fatigue even now, so I’m not speaking from the point of view of encouraging you to think that everything works out well, more from the point of view of God being in the midst of the challenges that we face.
The raft becomes the shore
This is a faith story, a song that’s meant to encourage us. Richard Rohr continues:
Falling, losing, failing are the pattern, I’m sorry to report. Yet they all lead towards home.
Psalm 40 is a reminder to us today that just as the pit ultimately confined Jesus for a few days, his tomb, it was not ultimately definitive for him. So the place of struggle, the place of darkness and even despair for us is never, and doesn’t have to be definitive.
Psalm 40 is a song or a story that is telling us that even in our personal struggles and suffering, the falling becomes the standing, the stumbling becomes the finding, the dying becomes the rising, and the raft becomes the shore.
A song of hope
Psalm 40 is a story, a song of hope, born out of adversity. It’s certainly my song today, and I believe it can be our song.
We often sing in our worship ‘Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord.’ And that’s reflecting Psalm 40 – ‘I waited patiently for the Lord’ – and this theme of God lifting us out of difficulty. Lament turns in this Psalm into a new song of praise. God’s unconditional love will always have the last word. That is what Psalm 40 is encouraging us to think today.
Psalm 40 is a story which tells us that the true goal in life is to be found not so much in success and everything going swimmingly all the time, but rather that we stumble and fall and in our darkest experiences find that God is there.
He is the God who lifts us up, the psalm tells us, and places our feet on the rock, and gives us a new song to sing.
A book for all our realities
The Psalms are our prayer book reflecting the reality of our human experience of life in all its joys and sorrows. It’s there to give us words to, as it were help us to grapple with all these different experiences in our lives.
Everything that a person can possibly feel, experience or pray is also expressed before God in the Psalms. Even Jesus himself, as we are reminded, took the Psalms on his lips in the darkest moments. ‘My God, My God, who have you forsaken me?’ (Psalm 22) – the words which Jesus spoke as he hung on the cross.
Jesus, in his supreme moment of darkness, in the pit and the miry clay of the cross brings the Psalm to mind.
A new song in the darkness
It’s interesting that there are more Psalms of lament than there are Psalms of praise in the Psalter of 150 Psalms. But the place of struggle, the place of questioning is so often the place that we commonly find ourselves in.
But God as we learn in Psalm 40 doesn’t ultimately leave us in that place of lament. He gives us a new song to sing even in the midst of the reality of our struggles. That’s why it was so good to hear Peter singing ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord’ – the reality is that we can sing these songs even in the middle of the struggles we face in life. He gives a new song to sing, a song of praise, a song of God’s presence, of trusting Him, of hope even in the darkness.
It’s no accident that the final Psalms in the Psalter are actually Psalms of praise because the God we worship and seek to follow is the God whom we experience, even when things seem unresolved. Life doesn’t suddenly become good for us, even in the midst of the struggles, even as we walk through the valley of the shadow, as Psalm 23 puts it, we will not be afraid because you, Lord, are with us.
We all have a story to tell
There are a number of good reasons why it’s been a real struggle having these on-line services. One of them, I think, is the fact that we are removed from the reality of the presence of one another in a way which perhaps makes the storytelling just that bit easier when we’re in the presence of others over coffee after a worship service, where we can share our stories, both the highs and the lows.
That’s what Psalm 40 is talking about when it says ‘I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help.’ (v10)
I want to remind you today that we all have an important story to share. Your own unique story of God’s help in the dark places and dark times is significant and powerful in the context of encouraging other people today. And it’s a story we can all tell. We don’t all need to be preachers, we don’t all need to know every part of the Bible. The ministry of encouragement, the ministry of being able to speak out of that place of experience of God in the midst of the darkness is a ministry that we can all share. The healing power of community and story. God is good. That’s the story we have to share in the midst of the challenges of life.
We worship the God this morning, tomorrow and whenever, we worship the God who hears our cries, who lifts us up and gives us a new song to sing.