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So Little to Do

May 12, 2014

“So Little to Do” Psalm 116; Acts 2:42-47 © 5.11.14 Easter 4A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It seems to little to do. Offer a word of testimony. Lift a cup. Say a prayer. Make a promise.

It seems so little to do in return for a love so amazing, so divine, so sustaining. Such a rescue from despair seems worth throwing a gala or hosting a big dinner. At least an ad in the paper, a post on your blog, a notice to all your friends and followers on social media. Maybe being snatched from the merciless grip of death ought to require the worshipper to set up an endowment fund to ensure the perpetual worship of God in a particular place.

But none of that is in the psalmist’s words. Yes, there’s the promise of service. Public notice of the goodness of God. But nothing spectacular or ostentatious. The psalmist sings for the edification and enrichment of the community of faith. This is language the unbelieving simply will not and cannot understand; these are practices they would consider foolish and pointless.

The singer and his congregation know better. And, I suspect, so do we. We only have to reflect a little on our own experiences to know how powerful the psalmist’s spiritual practices are. He’s been profoundly depressed. The signals are all there: anguish, distress, restlessness, feeling as if you’re going to die. Indeed, want to die. Who of us can truly say we have not had times of stumbling feet, tear-filled eyes, terror-filled hearts, a soul caught in the snare of death? We only have to think of the last time life shouted “no” in our faces. When was that? Last year? Last month? Last week? Yesterday? This morning?

The singer’s distress is compounded by his decision that nobody can be trusted. Even his best friends have proven to be liars, turncoats, if he really means “everyone.” The paranoia could be part of his dim view of the world, another signal of his mental state. His depression spews out hyperbole; he doesn’t have a friend in the world. Everybody is against him. He has to guard his emotions closely, so fragile are they; he has thrown up a force field to defend the space around his soul from the harm he is convinced others intend to do him. This is a man who has traveled or is traveling on a dark night on a lonely road in the middle of nowhere.

Somehow, though, by the grace of God, this sorry state of affairs has been transformed into newness so amazing and abundant and surprising there is nothing else to be done than give thanks with a grateful heart. Now the psalmist, no longer paranoid, no longer looking at the congregation as his enemies or maybe frenemies, stands before a gathering of God’s people and tells his story. It’s a tale of pain and distrust and sorrow that ends with deliverance and restoration. And his thanksgiving is signified in the ritual lifting of the cup, presenting a drink offering to God.

When life is falling apart, when your journey becomes too much, when the tasks before you or your community are overwhelming, when every day you confront another big question, you return to the tried and true, something ordered and ancient and shared and recited and done over and over by thousands through time. The newly birthed church after Pentecost, faced with 3000 members to instruct and care for all of a sudden, appropriated ritual as a structure for its life. Part of their daily practice was “the prayers.” Notice: not just “prayer,” but “the prayers,” meaning the regular recitation of ancient petitions and psalms at particular times of the day. There was also “the breaking of bread” meaning not just a meal together, but the Eucharist, as we celebrate this morning. That sacrament had characteristic actions and words, stemming from Jesus himself. Remember how the two disciples recognized him in the breaking of the bread? He was doing specific things that they had seen before.

In our own day, young adults particularly turn to the rituals of the past in their spiritual development. I was talking with an elder from a large church in one of our college towns last Tuesday at Presbytery. From his study of Millennials, he was trying to convince his minister that the way to go now was not contemporary worship, but something more traditional, meaning not 19th century, but 2nd or 3rd century. And a minister at the same meeting spoke about how he had been the pastor of a new church development that was “seeker-sensitive,” so there weren’t many symbols or older hymns. But he commented on the richness of the lyrics of the old hymns we sang during morning prayer. In short, everything old is new again. And there’s a reason. We need an anchor in chaos, a point of reference in the void, as we try to figure out the meaning of life and help others do so as well.

But probably nowhere is ritual more important than in times of brokenness and pain. Some years ago, a writer for a spiritual journal called Weavings told about the end of her marriage. She described waking up and trembling, alone, hopeless, sometimes terrified and sobbing, at other times “stone-cold and detached.” She discovered a gift, though. “In my barrenness,” she wrote, “the richness of ritual reassured and sustained me. Each Eucharist became a plea for healing, a cry for life. My ability to control and shape my life was gone. Ritual, empowered by the Spirit, provided a form to express the formless void I felt within. I could not create new prayers. Singing the psalms and litanies that the faithful had sung for ages gave voice as well as context to my pain. Endless numbers of people had cried out to God in ritual and symbol; now I joined them. Empowered and empowering, ritual and symbol became shorthand script for the steadfast presence of God. During my trauma, tradition and ritual became tap roots that helped sustain life” (Jean Blomquist, “Of Seeds and Suffering: Growing Spiritually Through a Divorce,” Weavings May/June 1989: 6-8).

The writer took the cup of salvation and said prayers that were not hers alone, but belonged to all the faithful. She could spend her energy not on writing new litanies, but on healing from her separation from her husband. The psalmist needed order again after the chaos and crisis he had experienced. He longed for a way to express his gratitude that didn’t sound trite or trendy or made-up. So he gathered with God’s people and told his story. He joined them in rituals their ancestors had developed and practiced. He made promises of service, humbly placing himself at the disposal of his Savior and Sovereign.

The takeaway here is that prayers and promises made in the midst of a community of faith lead us out into service in our other communities, to be available to Christ and for Christ as we find him present in our neighbors. “I am your servant,” said the poet. Depression turns us inward as energy and anger implode. Service turns out outward, focusing energy on others, for their well-being. The wonderful irony that we have all noted, I’m sure, is that those whom we serve often end up ministering to us. They say in one way or another “You’re not alone,” and comfort us. Or else they challenge, by reminding us that we are not the only ones with problems. Inevitably, in my experience, those whom we serve speak and act as God’s agents to reaffirm our calling, to offer insight, to give a rich sense of God’s grace.

A restless, despairing soul found hope again in the love of a faithful, listening God, mediated in the ritual of a community. He offered his thanks by telling his story, lifting a cup, saying a prayer, making a promise.

It seems so little to do.

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