~ Psalm 30 ~
I preached a sermon a few years back, at a previous church, in which I asked the question: “When I talk to God, am I only talking to myself?” I noted that a few years ago there was a lot of buzz in the media that the “God spot” had been found in the human brain, the one place in the brain that specializes in spirituality. It turns out that isn’t true. Instead neuropsychologists would describe it as a much more complex phenomenon. There is a neuropsychological basis for spirituality, they say, but it is a dynamic process, using multiple parts of the brain to facilitate an individual’s spiritual experience.
From one perspective that is incredibly fascinating. It’s amazing what scientists continue to discover about the human brain. From another perspective, a faith perspective, the idea that spirituality can somehow be measured as brain activity can be quite disconcerting. Is it possible that my spiritual experiences, indeed my experiences of God, are just the result of synapses firing in my brain? Is it possible that when I talk to God, I’m only talking to myself?
Behind the issue of to whom I am praying, myself or God, the basic question is: How do I experience God? Now, this “experience” thing can be quite tricky, for how do we evaluate experience? How do we determine if an experience is credible or not? The thing is that when it comes right down to it a personal experience is, well, personal. In a sense, only I can evaluate my own experience. We really aren’t in the position to critically evaluate the experience of others.
But what’s more, everybody’s experience is different than everyone else’s. Despite similarities of experience we each have unique experiences. Let me put it this way: Everyone here is experiencing the same thing – a service of worship. But we are not all having the same experience. We each are having our own individual experience.
It is in this light that I want to consider this psalm Linda read for us – Psalm 30. I asked her to read this rather funky version from The Message because I think it captures some of the discordant, contradictory, messed up way we experience God. Do I dare call it a schizophrenic psalm? On one hand he’s giving God all the credit for rescuing him from his plight. On the other hand he blames God when he fell to pieces. One moment he’s crowing “I’ve got it made!” The next he’s worried that God will let him die. He seemingly mocks God in that if God doesn’t come through for him and he dies, well, he’ll not be worth selling, getting auctioned off at a cemetery yard sale. “How can a pile of dust praise you, God?” he wonders aloud. So, God get me out of this mess. Get me out of the mess that is me!
OK, I admit we don’t really know what the mess is that the psalmist is referring to. But here’s my take on this psalm: Even though the psalmist goes back and forth about God, it really is about himself. Yes, it appears that God is there for him and then God is not. Look God in the face and give thanks but then God looks away and…what? God seems pretty flakey, don’t you think?
But God is not like that? Who is like that? We are! We are the flakey ones. I think this psalm really is about us, about you and me. I am the mess that God needs to save, to rescue, to pull out of the grave and give another chance at life. In the spirit of my question earlier (When I talk to God am I only talking to myself?), when the psalmist talks about God in this way isn’t he really talking about himself? Do we blame God for our troubles, our mess ups? Aren’t we the mess?
We are all walking contradictions. Sometimes we are good; sometimes we are bad. We are never either one or the other. We are always a mixture. Oh, we can try to separate out the good from the bad. We can pat ourselves on the back for the good that we are; we can beat ourselves up for the bad that we are. We can’t divide our lives up that way. Instead, may I suggest we live into the tension of those contradictions. Yes, there will be those times when we cry our eyes out but there will also be days of laughter. Embrace both. And in the midst of both we find God.
I think it is fair to say that our spiritual experiences are an internal ones. The experience of God happens inside us. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Consider Harry Potter’s experience. Towards the end of this phenomenal book series, Harry ponders the incredible experiences he’s been through. So, Harry asks Dumbledore one last question,
“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?
Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Yes; profound truths can be found even in Harry Potter.
How do you experience God? If you are a person of faith you probably can point to moments in your life when you felt God’s presence in a special way; that, indeed, God “spoke” to you in some way. We have different ways of describing this: an urging, a peace, a profound presence, a “call.” Theologian Marcus Borg says, “I sometimes have a sense of being addressed.”
I do believe God speaks to us. I’m with Dumbledore. Even though I experience God inside my body, inside my head, it doesn’t mean it isn’t real. But in my time on earth I’ve come to see this experience the way Frederick Buechner describes it. In an interview he gave once (but spelled out more fully in his book, A Sacred Journey) he says:
Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you because it is through what happens to you that God speaks…. It’s in language that’s not always easy to decipher, but it’s there powerfully, memorably, unforgettably.
Listen to your life. It is through what happens to you that you experience God. Looking back on my life I can see how I’ve experienced God in many, many ways. When I pay attention, I know it.
And when I pay attention, I find God’s healing touch even in my deepest lament. As Eugene Peterson puts it in his version of Psalm 30: “You changed my lament into whirling dance; you ripped off my black mourning band and decked me with wildflowers. I burst into song.” Or as our usual version puts it: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” May we thus experience God. Amen.