This essay was written as part of the outreach program of The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington to continue to minister to our community in this time of uncertainty and “social distancing” that requires not meeting in person. For essays by my friends and colleagues go to “Calming the Storm.”
So our eyes look to the LORD our God, *
until he show us his mercy.
Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy, *
for we have had more than enough of contempt,
Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, *
and of the derision of the proud. (Ps. 123:3-5)
As I write this, our readings for Morning Prayer over the last several days have included psalms that recall (or call upon) God’s mercy. One morning it was Psalms 122 and 123, then it was Psalm 106, and on before that it was Psalm 118. These were all psalms of praise and thanksgiving. Earlier in the year we read a long list of psalms of lament and imprecation, psalms that brought forth complaint to God about the circumstances of life and called down judgment upon the wicked. Those felt appropriate in our current circumstances, seemingly right and good during a time of disease and distrust. God knows we need to openly and honestly confess our anger, grief, and disappointment.
But these recent psalms? They were all psalms of praise and spoke of God’s unending mercy. Lately, it hasn’t felt like we have had a lot of mercy, has it? Yet when I looked more closely at these psalms, I realized they aren’t some naïve, happy-clappy songs about God always sending us sunshine and rainbows. They are, in fact, psalms of life, recounting the challenges and hardships that the author and the nation had endured. “All the ungodly encompass me…they hem me in on every side…I was pushed hard, so that I was falling” (Ps. 118:10-13). Or in Ps. 123, could many of our community not also cry out with the psalmist? “Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy, for we have had more than enough of contempt, too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.”
Whether these enemies are literally or metaphorically surrounding the psalmist, the danger, fear, and anguish is real. Encapsulated in these psalms are not just the praise of God, but the reality of life that includes hardship, struggles, and sufferings of our own making. Psalm 106 recounts the “holy history” of Israel, declares “the mighty acts of the LORD” without forgetting their sin or obstinance.
A moment of reflection (which it required of me; I confess I am wont to skim over the Psalms) reveals that our own experiences can be found in these words. We daily face our own enemies and fears; for some it might be depression, fear, or sickness. Whatever we may feel pressing upon us, we all, at times, feel as though we are going over the edge, “but the LORD came to my help” (Ps. 118:13).
That is the full truth of life. It is not just that there is hardship and suffering, injustice and illness that we experience, but there is also the grace and mercy of God. The importance of recounting our own history, troubles and all, is to remember also the deliverance of God. What deliverance, what mercy? Exactly. What deliverance? How is the grace of God at work in your life, in our lives, right now?
The phrase “to count your blessings” can seem trite because too often is wielded like a weapon. “You there! Stop your whining and count your blessings!” (I don’t know why, but in my head the speaker sounds like an old prairie preacher from a John Ford western. String tie, dark tails and all.) If the psalms are an example for us, and they most certainly are, then we should not stop our whining. It is good and appropriate to acknowledge to God (and ourselves, for God already knows) our fears and anguish. But we cannot stop there. We must go on, to recall how God has saved us, brought us comfort and grace in the past, even as we consider the hardship of the present. The mercy of God “endures for ever” and is always present, but do we always recognize it?
Look for God’s saving help, because it comes. Open your eyes and heart to the comfort and relief that God offers, because it is here. In the midst of the trouble and turmoil of this world, accept the peace of Christ…and praise the LORD.
Creator and Redeemer whose property it is always to have mercy, pour out your Spirit upon us, be present with us, and grant us your peace as we bring before you in prayer our pain, our grief, and our questions. For in you we live and move and have our being, now and forever. Amen.