07/21/19 “Praying the Thankful Psalms”

Psalm 30; John 11:17, 32-44

When Peyton was small, I stumbled across a child development book by a group called the Gesell Institute. It gave good practical advice on lots of topics, but one idea stuck with me long after both Peyton and I had outgrown the book.  It was about how human growth and development doesn’t happen in a straight line, angling steadily upwards, but is more like cycles in a spiral.

The book said that each cycle starts out in a state of “equilibrium.”  As children move into the ascending part of the spiral, they become more capable, more resourceful, and more cheerful. But then, just when they’re doing so well, they start to change. They get clumsy and irritable and gloomy for no apparent reason.  The little girl who couldn’t stop dancing through the house starts bumping into the door frames.  The boy who loved being a big brother is mean to his younger siblings. It seems like they’re losing the skills and maturity they had so recently gained. When this happens, the Gesell folks say, they’re in a period of “disequilibrium”—the downward part of the spiral.

But the good news is that, after a period of time, they will reach a new level of equilibrium, and there will be an upward swing again. And the better news is that the lowest point of any cycle is always higher than the previous cycle’s high point.  Each new cycle produces growth in understanding, capabilities, and general well-being that surpasses the earlier cycle. Even though the upward movement is constantly disrupted by downturns, disequilibrium eventually results in a new stage that is even better than the one that came before.

Here’s why that idea has stuck with me for so long. The Gesell experts have found that these alternating periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium actually continue throughout our entire lives.  The highs and lows may be further apart, and we may take longer to get through the cycles, but we still experience them throughout our lives.

When we began this series about the Psalms, I mentioned that the great Psalms scholar Walter Brueggemann named three main categories of psalms, and they’re pretty similar to the stages in the spiral.  We have the “psalms of orientation”—the prayers of people who are in a state of equilibrium and who feel firmly grounded in a world that they think is all that it should be.

Then, something upsets their peaceful status quo. Their world becomes chaotic, and injustice and suffering make their appearance.  This upheaval leads to psalms of “disorientation” and disequilibrium, including the ones with violent prayers for vengeance that we talked about last week.

Then, things change again.  The psalmists reach a point that Brueggemann called “reorientation”—a new level of equilibrium that is different and better than the one before. The thankful psalms are the grateful response to this grace-filled, life-changing gift from God.

The thankful psalms begin with the psalmist announcing his intention to praise God. We hear it in Psalm 30: “I will extol you, O Lord!”  The various meanings of the Hebrew word that we translate as “extol” gives us an idea of the psalmist’s high spirits: “I will set you on high; I will lift you up; I will exalt you!”  The psalmist bubbles over with exuberance and joy over all that God has done.

In the thankful psalms, the authors give specifics about what God has done to cause such gratitude.  In our psalm we hear, “You have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me…you have healed me…you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”

The thankful psalms also tell the sad tales of what the psalmists have been through. They describe the causes of the sleepless nights, the physical pain, the emotional turmoil, and even the uncontainable rage.  In Psalm 30, the psalmist confesses that he had once been a prosperous man, and that his prosperity had given him a false sense of confidence in his own abilities.  He had said, “I shall never be moved.” He had thought, “God has made me as solid as a mountain!” His attitude had been, “I’m too big to fail!”

But then he found out otherwise.  He found himself on unsteady ground. His mountain-like solidness began to crumble. He felt like God had turned away from him. He learned the hard way that he was not too big to fail.  He found himself in the Pit—a place of powerlessness, a place where no one can see you, a place where you are isolated and separated from all that is life-giving—friends, family, community. Think of Joseph, thrown into a pit by his jealous brothers.  Think of Jeremiah, lowered into the pit of a cistern by his enemies, where he sank into the mud.  Think of present-day prisoners in solitary confinement or (as it’s often called) “the hole.”

The psalmist also describes himself as having been in Sheol. This isn’t a place of final punishment or hell as we often wrongly interpret it. Rather, the ancient Israelites thought of Sheol as a place that is drained of all beauty, all color, all joy, all life. The Pit and Sheol are both symbols of mental, spiritual, emotional, and maybe physical death.

We hear only the barest outline of how the psalmist came to be in such a dire predicament, and we don’t know exactly what he was suffering. He speaks of how he feared that people would make fun of his misfortune. He confesses his own misguided reliance on his own resources and success. He refers to a need for healing, but we don’t know what he was healed from—whether he was sick in body or sick in spirit or both.  We don’t know if he had been confined in a physical pit or a metaphorical pit, or if he was literally in danger of dying.  But we do know that whatever beset him was not a minor complaint.  These thankful prayers are always connected to matters of life and death.

This is what the psalmist was facing when he cried to the Lord for help.  In his prayer in Psalm 30, he repeats what he had cried out from the depths of his helplessness: “Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!”

The writer Anne Lamott wrote a book about what she considers the three essential prayers. It was called Help, Thanks, Wow. Lamott says that the truest kind of prayer for help is the one we offer when we finally free ourselves from the notion that we can control the uncontrollable.  It’s the prayer we offer when we realize that we cannot be our own “higher power.” This is the kind of prayer that the psalmist had prayed—the prayer of someone who knows they have nowhere to go and no one else to look to for help but God alone.

But then, as in all the thankful psalms, the psalmist tells us what the Lord did for him: “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”  From a disequilibrium so severe that the psalmist equated it with death, the Lord had restored him to life.

But, this is not just a superficial change in conditions.  It’s not a return to or re-make of the old life. This is a fundamental change from one state of being to another.  He had been as good as dead, and now he is alive again.  His life has been transformed into something entirely new. What was broken has been made whole, but the broken pieces have been put together in a new way.  This great change that God made in his life is the reason that the psalmist closes with another vow of gratitude. His soul will praise God and not be silent. “O Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”

Gratitude is at the very heart of these prayers.  They were usually offered at the temple, because gratitude like this required both a material and a spiritual response.  People sang these grateful prayers as they were offered a physical gift of thanks in the temple.  But as they made their offering, the grateful person didn’t sing their prayers of thanks quietly.  They declared their thanks aloud.  They sang as soloists, but they were surrounded by others, whom they encouraged to sing praises and give thanks as well.  “Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name!” the psalmist cries out in the midst of his prayer. One writer described these times of joy-filled, thankful prayer as “the most beautiful hours in the life of the pious.”

As with the other kinds of psalms, we can make these thankful prayers our own.  By giving us just a sketch of their troubles and how God rescued them, the psalmists leave us room to fill in our own situations. I think many of us could tell of a time when we felt the way the author of Psalm 30 did: so down that we felt like we were dying, a time when we suffered the loss of hopes and dreams, cherished assumptions, or physical abilities, a time when we experienced the death of life as we knew it and realized that nothing we could do on our own would make things better.  We can confess the things we’ve done that caused us to end up in that place of despair, or tell of the circumstances beyond our control that landed us there. We could tell of the times when we’ve prayed that prayer: “O Lord, be my helper!”

And, we have stories to tell of how God responded to our pleas as God did to the psalmist’s. We can tell of how, through God’s grace, we emerged from death-like darkness into the marvelous light of life.  And we can tell how, when we did, we knew that we were different people, and that life would never be the same again.  We were pulled out of our own Pit with a clearer understanding of God’s love for us, more joy, greater trust, and a deeper love of God. We emerged as utterly transformed people.

I wonder if, when Lazarus emerged from his tomb, and his friends and family unwrapped the cloths that bound him, he offered a thankful prayer.  I imagine that he, in his illness, had cried out to God for rescue. Maybe he had endured a pit of physical pain and emotional anguish over how his sisters would get along without him.  As he squinted in the light that lit up his living, breathing face, and he realized what had happened, I imagine him bursting into a prayer of gratitude for the new life he’d been given—maybe even with the very words of Psalm 30, a prayer he certainly would have known.  Surely, he could not have contained his gratitude, as he spoke of what he’d been through and what God had done for him through Jesus.

You might be thinking, “I’ve never had that kind of experience.  I’ve never felt so low that I had to cry out to God for rescue.  I can’t think of a time when God radically changed my life. I certainly haven’t been raised from the dead!”  But I’m here to tell you that, if you name yourself a Christian—if you’ve accepted the life Jesus offers—then you do have a rescue story to tell.  You’ve been saved from the death that comes from trying to live apart from God.  Through the saving love of Jesus, you have been raised from death into new life.

All of us who claim Jesus as our Lord and Savior have been given a life-transforming gift.  Through our faith in Jesus, we have been given new life—not just a remake of the old life, but a new way of living.  We were rescued from the old orientation of our lives before we realized how much we needed God. We were rescued from our times of disorientation when we came to that moment of realizing what sin does in our lives and our world and that, on our own, we are powerless over it.

When we accepted God’s gift of grace through our faith in Jesus, we were given the gift of re-orientation—new lives that have a new focus, a new direction, a new power, all because of the work God does in us and for us through Jesus Christ. As Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” That is cause enough for us to offer grateful prayers every day, and the thankful psalms can teach us how to express our gratitude.

They teach us to thanks out loud where others can hear about what God has done for us and to invite them to join in our celebration and praise.  They teach us to tell our backstory—about what we were rescued from and how we came to need rescuing in the first place, even if that means confessing our own embarrassing errors and weaknesses. They teach us to tell how we prayed when we realized how powerless we are on our own and how dependent we are on God’s care. They teach us to be specific in our prayers of thanks, letting God and those around us know that we’re not taking a single gracious act for granted. When we don’t know how to pray as we ought, the psalmists have given us the words we need to follow the advice Paul gave the Philippians: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

The Book of Psalms is our prayer book, and it provides us with prayers for all the different stages of our lives.  No matter where we are in the spiral, whether we are experiencing equilibrium or disequilibrium, whether we are in a state of orientation, disorientation, or reorientation, the psalmists have been there before us. With the prayers of the Psalms, we can praise God for the wonders we encounter each day, and we can place our deepest desires and feelings before God.  With the prayers of the Psalms, we can express our gratitude to God for the ways in which God has given us new life, most especially the eternal life Jesus offers, which we can live right here and right now.  For these gifts, we can pray the thankful words of the psalmist, “O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.” Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young