Let me be honest. Having gone to sleep early, I woke up at 1:36am last night after a very full day at my new job. I’m a youth pastor now [with some other things also on my plate] at an urban church in San Francisco, California. Between the various stresses that have marked the recent season of transition, my mind was filled with anxiety stemming from an upcoming event at our church that I am planning.
I could not go back to bed.
What choice had I? It was clear: I had to seek refuge. I turned to our family Bible. It’s a wide-margin leather Bible we received as a gift prior to our wedding. Like a hungry teen searching the fridge after an exhausting day, I asked God to provide me with nourishment. Soon, I felt directed to the Psalms. The 103rd Psalm captured me within seconds.
We had left this family Bible out at our wedding back in 2013 with instructions for our guests to annotate its text and note chapters and verses that had been meaningful to them over their years. People I love dearly and folks on my wife’s side that I barely knew filled the margins with reflections and affirmations. When we transitioned from the RiverTree, the church in Grand Rapids I served for three years, we repeated this annotation practice and received the gift of our congregation’s thoughts and responses to Scripture. And now, reading this Bible is like reading Scripture with a host of spiritual friends.
Psalm 103 happened to have a little note from my parents next to it as well as a message from my cousin Chad and his wife Jessica. Here’s what I sensed God showing me last night, during a moment of anxiety.
“Praise the Lord… who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”
You really should read this Psalm. It’s that good. So, honestly, I’m not sure how youthful eagles are, but God has deeply satisfied my desires for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a great family and maintain good relationships with all of them. Though I had my share of struggles and issues and still have tons of problems, God has met me with grace at each turn in life. I went to an amazing undergraduate college and I’m in close touch with numerous friends from this all-too-brief chapter in life. Seminary was filled with learning and spiritual growth. During this time, I met my lovely wife, Kaile. Sooner than we both expected, we were given the gift of a beautiful son, Silas. Sooner than we expected, we were invited into a faith community in a distant yet beautiful city for a job that is difficult but already rewarding. Sooner than we expected, people have reached out to Kaile and me in friendship. God has been redeeming me for a long time, and I guess I shouldn’t sit here anxious that he will stop now.
“The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love…”
Sparing you the details, this phrase appears much earlier in the Bible, and it is repeated in various parts of the first [“Old”] testament, Genesis through Malachi. There are moments when I need to be reminded of God’s justice, moments that I need to know that God can take care of people responsible for genocides and rapes and recruiting child soldiers. He can even take care of that lady who was really mean to my dad when he was helping us get moved into our new apartment here in San Francisco [ok, it wasn’t that big of a deal!].
This phrase strikes me, and all of us I think, with a rich sense of God’s justice, but even more so of his love. The second [“New”] testament features Jesus, God’s Son [crazy, I know!] who embodies love. In one little New Testament book, I John, the author tells us in chapter four that God himself is love. It’s as plain as that. At his core, the God who created all things is love itself. He defines it! Amidst the anxieties that struck last night, I am reminded that if God, abounding in love, who is identified as love, loves me and my little family. It’s not just a general, abstract, conceptual love, no. It’s a personal love.
I could keep going with that theme for a long time, but there is more Psalm left, and I should close this up before I lose you entirely.
“As for man [and woman too, of course!], his/her days are like grass… the wind blows over it and it is gone…”
In case you hadn’t checked on this lately, you’re going to die. That reality puts all of life in perspective, doesn’t it? And no matter how cool my turntable and bicycle and furniture are, just like my life, they won’t last forever. God is reminding us of the brevity of our lives, and with good reason! He wants us to enjoy life! I used to think God was pulling some kind of doom-and-gloom tactics so we’d notice him, but no. Not so much. Read on. That little section on people fading away like plants is buttressed with a sweeping finále.
“But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children…
Do I need to wax on about God’s love? Right after we’re reminded that our lives are limited, the focus shifts to how much we are loved. Oh yeah, and then, after that, there’s that bright Christian hope of being raised to eternal life when Jesus returns to finish the work he started on earth [see the New Testament book of I Corinthians, chapter 15]. Just like Jesus was raised from the dead, we will also be raised.
“…Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the Lord, O my soul.”
Ancient Jewish followers of God pictured the world totally differently than we as post/modern people imagine it. We have this tendency to strip away everything except empirical data. They saw things differently, poetically writing about the various layers and facets of the spiritual world. God had created all things, and there had to be more, good and bad, than what meets the eye.
I have, over my life, experienced a great many moments that seal, in my soul, what I believe in my brain. I do believe God created; I see a world filled with beauty. Though obstructed with so many evils that we as humans perpetuate, God has still blessed us with so many good things. One good thing is music. Just last night, I walked home with Kaile and Silas alongside a huge group of people that had just filed out of the San Francisco Symphony. I don’t know which composers they drew from that evening, but I have no doubt it was beautiful.
Over my lifetime, God has spoken over and over again in my life through music. Most recently, it was at my new church. Karl, the worship leader [or whoever] picked a song that I had sung and led for a number of years. I had sung it with students at a little Episcopal church, Grace, and sung it with [mostly] middle-aged folks at RiverTree. And now, I was singing it with a lot of Asian people in the middle of San Francisco. It was hard to sing, because it felt so deeply true last Sunday. Though I was filled with emotions that day, I sang some of it:
You alone can rescue, you alone can save; you alone can lift us from the grave
You came down to find us, led us out of death, to you alone belongs the highest praise
Written by an English guy named Matt Redman, the song is called You Alone Can Rescue. If your heart doesn’t believe the words, doesn’t it want to believe them? Would you entertain the idea of letting yourself wonder if they could be true? That Psalm 103 is really speaking true things about God?
I pray that each of us finds God at work in the cracks and fissures of our lives. I pray we see God at work in the counseling session, in the workday, in the park, at the ball game, in our marriages, in our friendships, in our failures and in our moments of triumph.
And I thought I’d take a moment to share my experience of God’s care for me during a 1:36am moment of nighttime anxiety.