“Oh! The Places God Will Go”Dr. R. Dale McAbee Psalm 91 Year C – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – (Proper 21)
The last book written by Theodor Geisel in 1990 was entitled “Oh The Places You’ll Go.” Perhaps you know the author better as Dr. Seuss. The book is frequently given as a graduation gift and it offers sage advice about the journey of living. It starts out very optimistic with such encouraging cheer-leading at every turn that even the most cynical and negative of graduates will be transformed into a “Robert Schuler future is bright” possibility thinker. Here is a taste:
Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
by Dr. Seuss
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
You’ll look up and down streets. Look’em over with care. About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.” With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down a not-so-good street.
And you may not find any you’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town. It’s opener there in the wide open air.
Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you.
And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too.
Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.
You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Who couldn’t succeed with that kind of encouragement ringing in your ears?
When I turn to Psalm 91 I feel like I’m in Dr. Seuss’ last book. The psalm is a “Song of Trust” and every image is pervasively positive and hopeful. If you fall in a ditch or get caught in a trap, God is there to rescue you. Even if you are fighting a fierce battle and arrows are whizzing by giving you a closer trimmed haircut than you had wanted, you will not be harmed. Thousands will fall at your side and ten thousands at your right hand but you will not see harm. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest. Pervasively positive to say the least!
To fully experience the psalm imagine yourself at a pep rally. The cheerleaders are in place, there is excitement in the air, and then someone steps up to the microphone. This is not a time for ambivalence or insecurity. This is a moment of certainty. No one can defeat us. No matter what happens we will not fail. You can step into their moving screens and double teaming and nothing bad will come of it. Why? Well in sports it’s because we’re the Tigers, or the Panthers or the Bears or the Cardinals. And we have supreme confidence in our team.
In Psalm 91 it’s because we are God’s team and we have supreme confidence in the God of Israel. The God who called Abraham to found a nation is the same God who delivered the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage and gave the commandments to Moses. This is the one who established a covenant with the people at Mt. Sinai and is the dependable God who will never allow the chosen people to experience defeat. As another psalm says, “he who watches Israel never slumbers nor sleeps.” Pervasively positive!
Dr. Seuss is also initially “pervasively positive,’ with his “Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest. But then he does finally add a note of honest realism:
Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.
With those words he signals that he is about to move into some of the harsher realities of living.
I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.
You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch.
You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you’ll be in a Slump.
To be honest, I’m always glad to hear “Except when you don’t, because sometimes, you won’t.” Psalm 91, and perhaps it’s just me, sounds almost too good to be true. After the pervasive positiveness of “a thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you,” I want someone to stand up and say “Except when you don’t, because sometimes you won’t.” Maybe that’s because my spiritual temperament leans toward “winter” and not “summer.”
Steve Shoemaker has helped me understand these two spiritual types. Summery spirituality sings “there shall be showers of blessings” and quotes Browning “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world”. There is an inner sense of wellbeing and the soul lives in the immediacy of God’s presence. Also talking about the experience of faith comes with ease. I think much of popular TV religion is of the summery sort as well as the spirituality of the fast-growing mega churches. (One famous Mega church in Texas changed their name from Second Baptist to “The Fellowship of Excitement” which made me wonder would I be welcome if I wasn’t feeling excited.)
Wintry spirituality on the other hand struggles. It believes more than it feels. It wrestles with the absence of God more than experiences the presence of God. When wintry souls hear “Victory in Jesus” and “Everyday with Jesus is sweeter than the day before” they feel like they are standing outside a cabin window in the snow looking in on a roaring fire they can’t quite get to. (See link below for additional information on the wintry/summery concept discussed by Dr. Martin Marty in “Cry of Absence.” http://www.mpbconline.org/sermon.php?sermon=Sermons%202012/2012-11-11 )
My wintry temperament likes Psalm 13. It provides me the needed “Except when you don’t, because sometimes, you won’t.” The psalm begins in honest lament and clear expression of pain and suffering:
How long O Lord, will you forget me?
How long will you hide your face?
How long must I bear grief in my soul?
But having expressed honestly in the present tense the truth if feels the prayer is then able to move into the past tense with an authentic reminiscence: “But I trusted in your steadfast love.” The memory of God’s faithfulness in the past sets up the possibility of a hopeful future story:
“My heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord.”
Earlier this week I was in my office at the hospital when I heard a knock at my door. I opened it, but no one was there. Thinking I was hearing things I closed the door and sat back down but there came another knock. Again I opened the door and again no one was there. This is odd. But then I heard a small sound like someone clearing their throat and I looked down and there stood the smallest man I have ever seen. He was about 8 inches tall. Before I could say anything he walked straight into my office and jumped up onto my desk.
“How far have you gotten” he asked.
“Excuse me, do I know you?”
“I’m K.J. K.J. Psalter.”
“K.J. Psalter. You mean King James Psalter?”
“Well King James sounds kind of pretentious these days so I just go by K.J. I heard you were working on a sermon from one of my Psalms so I thought I’d see if I could help. How’s it going?”
“You want to help me write a sermon?”
“Sure, I mean I know you’re pretty busy and you don’t preach very much and not many preachers preach on the Psalms. I thought you could use some help.”
I was stunned to say the least. I just stood there with my mouth hanging open. “Excuse me I have to go to the bathroom.”
When I got returned K.J was reading through my materials. He said, “So you have been doing some research?”
“I’ve been working with Psalm 91, a song of trust.”
“Yeah, that’s one of my best”
“Well, it’s not one of my favorite. It strikes me as too good to be true. It kind of goes overboard on the positive note, if you ask me.”
“I see your point. But surely you’ve noticed the final verses. That’s when God speaks. It’s a poem with a narrator who speaks in second person, sort of like your cheerleader talking to the crowd image, (sorry I read your rough draft when you went to the bathroom.). But then the last three verses changes and it is God speaking in first person. God acknowledges both “trouble” and the need for “rescue.” There is balance once we hear from God.
“That makes sense. And I had not noticed the shift at the end. Thanks. I’ve turned to Psalm 13 to show that we need balance and that a Psalm of Lament offers the balance to the overly positive tone of Psalm 91. I guess I was just concerned that Psalm 91 didn’t capture the full spiritual experience that I think the entire collection of Psalms serves to mirror. It was Saint Athanasius who said ‘the Psalms become like a mirror to the person who sings them.”
K.J. asked me, “what do you think he meant by that?”
“Well I think he meant that we can’t really know or see fully who we really are, we tend to deceive ourselves and the Psalms have the power to open us up to a deeper view of who we really are.”
“Well if you like that quote, you’ll love what John Calvin said.”
“What did he say,” I asked in exasperation.
“He said, ‘the Psalms are an anatomy of all Parts of the Soul; there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”
“That’s good, I may use that.”
Well just then there was a knock at the door.
“Look that’s my patient coming for pastoral counseling. You need to leave.”
“Oh no, I’ll just jump up on the shelf and blend in with the other books. No one will know a thing.”
“I didn’t like it but since I didn’t want to have to explain an 8 inch tall man, I went along with him.”
I conducted the session as best I could but I was very distracted to say the least. My patient was dealing with a lot of painful things but she felt guilty for just the normal expression of anger and sadness and grief. Anytime she would start to feel her feelings she would say, “I know you’re not supposed to be angry at God.” I asked, “Who told you that?” She said, “I don’t know, I guess I just had always thought that it was wrong. I do remember my grandmother saying ‘God wants to see you smile and nothing else, just like me honey.’”
I didn’t think I could undo the power of that unfortunate learning but since I’d been in the Psalms for several days I decided to have her read Psalm 13 out loud. I said, “It seems to me that the Psalmist is letting himself fully express all that is in him, even if it’s uncomfortable because he has a closeness and intimacy with God that can handle honesty.
In our closest relationships we can’t withhold how we really feel. If someone has hurt us or disappointed us, the relationship can only be real if there’s a willingness to open up. In Psalm 13 only after there has been the honest expression of pain and despair in the present can memory reconnect to a better time in the past. That in turn opens up the possibility of hope for the future.
I then shared the really painful and harsh verse in Psalm 137 about “dashing little ones against rocks.” I said, “It’s a violent image but it helps us express the depth of anguish in us and then amazingly begins to set us free from it.”
I wasn’t certain I’d been any help but maybe I’d made a little progress in helping my patient begin to feel more connected to what she was actually experiencing.
When my patient left, K.J. jumped down from the shelf.
“That was amazing. You used my words to really help her. You showed her that nothing she was experiencing was outside God’s understanding.”
At this point I suppose I should come clean—I didn’t really meet an 8 inch tall man this week. That was my playful way to say that as I lived day after day with the words of Psalms, I did encounter a live presence. The Psalms this week became a living reality to me, as close and dependable as a familiar friend.
The late Peter Gomes, the former chaplain at Harvard University shares a story of a woman who had just been diagnosed with cancer. He says that when she asked for his help he invited her to sit down and read the entire King James Psalter in one or two sittings. He relates, “I wanted her to have an immersion experience into the soul of the writer. And I wanted her to read it in an unfamiliar yet evocative translation… so that she would have to enter into it and not be carried along by the familiarity of it all.”
When he asked her how it went she replied, “I had no idea the psalmist knew who I was, my precise condition, and what I needed and when. When he rejoiced, so did I. And when he howled and cried out, I did too. I was not alone.”
One Psalm may not be enough. One Psalm may not capture or mirror back to us the richness of our full experience. But the entire collection, 150 possibilities, is certainly up to the challenge.
Dr. Seuss entitled his book “Oh The Places You’ll Go.” I’ve entitled this sermon, “Oh, The Places God Will Go.” The book of Psalms, the prayer book of Judaism and Christianity teaches that every place we go, God will go as well.
So I invite us all into that strange and marvelous book that we call the Psalter, “invited into a relationship with a voice other than our own” according to Kathleen Norris. And ironically, if we keep at it long enough, uttering those old words from so long ago will become the best chance we have of uttering our own words authentically, and finding our truest voice.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
About the Writer: Dr. R. Dale McAbee lives in Louisville, Kentucky where he is Chaplain at Baptist Health Louisville. For nineteen years he has worked with Psychiatric and Rehabilitation patients and well as those in treatment for Chemical Dependency. He is also a Fellow of American Association of Pastoral Counselors. For the last three years he has served as Choirmaster of Concordia Lutheran Church. A native of Spartanburg, South Carolina, Dale earned the BA in Music from Furman University, the Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling at Southern Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Columbia Seminary. In the spring of 2009 he served as Adjunct Professor of Pastoral Care at Saint Meinrad Seminary, Saint Meinrad, Indiana.
Scripture and Music
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus
It Is Well with My Soul
Take My Life, and Let It Be
Are Ye Able
When the Church of Jesus
Jesus Is Lord of All
Let All Things Now Living
On Eagle s Wings (Michael Joncas)
Take My Life that I May Be (Carl Nygard)
Poor Man Lazarus (Jester Hairston)
Majesty (Jack Hayford)
O Be Joyful (John Rutter)
On Eagle s Wings (Michael Joncas)
Jesus Is Lord of All (McClard)
Offertory (John Ness Beck)