Life for the Withering Soul (Sermon on Psalm 14)

It goes without saying that the pandemic has affected all of us in many ways: Physically, emotionally, mentally, financially, and even spiritually.  These past 17 months have been filled with mounting anxiety and dread and even as restrictions have lessened and some normality has resumed, it is still difficult to function as we did before when we know that the threat has not totally been eradicated.  We may feel a mixture of both excitement and apprehension, elation and uncertainty, as what was once normal begins to feel more foreign to some of us.

 One day, I met up with some friends and one of them asked this profound question:  “What would it be like to live our lives with no restrictions?”  Just think about that for a minute.  All of us are restricted in various ways.  We might be restricted because of our age, gender, ethnicity, skin colour,citizenship, financial position or our disability, but what would it truly be like to live without having to worry about anything?  To live a life free of economic hardship, racism, stress, worry, anxiety or depression?  Put another way: What would it be like if the world were truly perfect?

In today’s reading of Psalm 14, we see the exact opposite of that ideal world.  Instead of a Utopian paradise the Psalmist writes of a dystopian reality similar to the books I loved growing up: 1984, Brave New World, and the Giver.  

Instead of writing about a world where no one goes hungry, all are treated fairly, and all have equal opportunities, the Psalmist asks the same questions many of us might have posed at some point in our own lives.  Questions like: Why do the wicked prosper while the righteous go unnoticed? Why do some live in luxury while others live in poverty?  Why are some human beings cruel and exploit others instead of empowering them in love?  And why do some people seem to only care about themselves as they trample those they consider “less than” them?  Put simply, these sentiments can all be summed up in one age old question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Over the last 3 months I have been living in Saskatchewan and working at an inner-city hospital doing my first chaplaincy training course also called a “Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) Unit.”  Working in such a poverty stricken environment has truly made me more aware of the evils of systemic oppression, racism, and colonization.  The Psalmist uses the word “sin” which is not really an in vogue phrase these days, but the word literally means to “miss the mark.”  When unmarked graves have been discovered, we as a Canadian society missed the mark.  When children go to bed hungry, we as a society are missing the mark.  When Indigenous children were placed in white environments with the sole objective to eradicate their culture, language, and ethnic heritage our society missed the mark.  And when elementary and high schools failed to teach the truth about the residential schools sheltering students from the actual horrors of Canadian history, and didn’t even bother to mention the term “60s Scoop” white Canada missed the mark once again.  

Throughout these last 3 months, I have interacted with many Indigenous patients and this has been humbling especially because it was over this summer that the mass graves were discovered.  These discoveries were nauseating and made many of us feel physically sick, and as a chaplaincy student and ministry student on the path to ordination, I felt like my gut had been punched recognizing that these atrocities were done in the name of the church and in the name of Christianity.  A religion whose primary values were founded on peace, love, and social justice had ironically been responsible for death, destruction, and demolition.  

The Scriptures tell us that when one member suffers we all suffer.  To use an analogy, it’s like when you break a bone.  I broke part of my lower back a few years ago, and despite the fact that I was still in my mid-to-late 20s, I have much more empathy now for anyone living with back pain.  I simply missed a step on the stairs and slid the rest of the way down.  I was fine the day it happened, but the next day I could barely stand let alone walk.  In reality, it was only one section of my body that was affected, but it made me feel dizzy, my ears started ringing, and I thought I might throw up because I was in so much pain.  I went to the doctor who told me that there was nothing she could do and that it must heal on its own.  She also told me that I would suffer from back pain the rest of my life as a result.  I was only in my 20s, but I had to limp off the bus.  I had to sit in the front section, got dirty looks from some elderly people who thought I was just some inconsiderate kid, but later looks of pity when they noticed the searing pain as I hobbled off the bus.  When one member suffers we all suffer.  When one member experiences brokenness, we all feel the pain.  And when one member will continue to live with the effects long after the fact, we all surround that person and take responsibility.

The effects of the residential schools and the discovery of the graves were very damaging to the patients I did see, and yet, many of them had quite an unexpected response.  Some of them were angry, to be sure, but many of them still had an unshakable faith.  Several of them still identified as Christian.  One of the best moments was in speaking to an Indigenous man who said “I want you to know that I am not against Christ.  Believing in Christ is a good thing.  Being a Christian is a good thing.  It was not the church that did this to us, it was bad people who were part of the church.”  I have heard similar sentiments voiced from my Indigenous siblings as they offer direct and indirect forgiveness.  That truly has been the most humbling experience of all.

Perhaps we have never experienced an atrocity to the same scope as the residential schools, but all of us have experienced a tragedy or a trauma in our lives and perhaps when we faced such a difficulty we might have asked “is there a God and if there is why is he allowing this to happen to me?” or looking back on the experience we might ask “where was God when….”

I have had these moments myself and part of my faith journey has been learning that doubt does not have to be a negative thing and in fact can actually prove to be a very healthy aspect of growing up spiritually.  So, I found the beginning of the Psalm to be quite harsh.  The Psalmist writes “the fool says in his heart ‘there is no God’ they are all corrupt, their deeds are vile, and there is no one who does good.’”  I thought this was harsh because as a student chaplain I encountered many atheists and agnostics at the hospital who were kind, loving, and generous people.  They might not have had a religious label, but I soon discovered they were spiritual nonetheless.  I found this statement quite judgmental, until I did a bit more digging.  I then learned that the term fool in Hebrew literally means “withering soul.”  That helped to put it into more perspective for me.  

This pandemic and all the news headlines that have come with it have caused many of our souls to wither.  Living in this broken world and the things we and our loved ones have gone through likely have caused our souls to wither at times.  Having to live through grief, loss, pain, and disappointment can often lead to what St. John of the Cross terms a “dark night of the soul” similar to how the trees and plants wilt and wither when winter arrives.  This is so much a part of life in fact that the Psalmist doesn’t just share these sentiments once but writes the same Psalm again almost word for word just a few chapters later in Psalm 53.

 When it’s hot and sunny outside we can often forget that this weather won’t last forever and soon there will be ice and snow on the ground once again.  In our lives we experience all the seasons – the anticipation of spring, the joy of summer, the beauty of fall, and the stillness of winter.  And yet, even in the winter, there is still hope and promise of the spring because we live our lives in cycles rather than in a linear progression.  Even in the most painful moments of our lives, we can see growth and peace if we open our hearts to the possibility.  Borrowing a line from  Dr. Maurice “life can emanate and feel like a seedling and plant buried deep within the pavement and cement.  Do no despair – like the plant, there is a life source, light, energy, and growth that can and will break through the impossible and burst into light, beauty, gentleness, and strength.” (Out of the Shadows – Volume 2)

What are the signs of life you see springing up around you today?  What are the ways that you see God moving and working even in the midst of trials, uncertainties, doubts and fears?

I see signs of life even in the inner city of Saskatoon through a local church that has opened an ice cream stand employing street youth to have a summer job.  I see life in my friend Dr. Maurice who empowers Indigenous and Metis sibling through her advocacy and education work and through the power of a story that is rarely told.  I believe there is life when churches practice an enduring and inclusive love opening their doors to others whom society has rejected and those who cannot find a place anywhere else.  I believe that life is strongest when those who have faced immense difficulties in their lives transform their experiences by showing others who suffer that there is a way out.  I find Christ’s love in the creative, in the writers, the poets, the artists, and the musicians, and I find radical hospitality in anyone who finds a withered soul and pours water and sunshine on them to help them grow even more beautiful and radiant.

Yes, on this earth we will face many moments when our soul feels withered, but we will also experience God looking down on us with love.  We will experience vibrant dreams and spiritual insights, and we will discover God seeking after us just as we seek after Him.  May it be so.  Amen.

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