Horizontal Faith

August 13, 2017
Reverend Sarah Brouwer

Psalm 90; Hebrews 4:12-16

Psalm 90

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”

For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.

For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.

Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!

Psalm 90 is typically read at funerals. And it might be because of that fact, and not despite it, that it has become one of my favorite Psalms. I appreciate the comfort of its familiarity; it returns me to the sacred moments in which it has been read. Funerals are hard, there’s no way around that, but sometimes they can also be moments for taking stock, checking priorities, and making meaning. This Psalm acts as a mirror, and the more I’ve read it the more I see myself and a reflection of what a relationship with God might look like over the span of a lifetime. Of course, the language about God being angry is typically left out for memorial services, which is appropriate. But, given the chance, I love reading the whole thing.

There is something about God being angry that many find troubling, but I think it’s an important part of this Psalm. It’s raw, honest. God is not completely unaffected, and that makes God more relatable. A God who is accessible is emotional and reactive, and closely aware of the measure and rhythm of our lives. I’m no psychologist, but I wonder if the reason the Psalmist focuses so much on God’s anger, and his own mortality, is because he’s projecting some things on to God. Without trying to sound too critical, mostly because I think I’ve been here myself from time to time, it sounds kind of like the Psalmist is playing a bit of a blame game. It sounds like he knows he has done something to make God angry that he’d rather not let us know about here- God doesn’t get angry without good reason, after all. And maybe there’s also a chance, he’s angry with himself. Either way, he’s working it out, externally processing with God, using God as a sounding board. And along the way he touches on some serious concerns, which might be the underlying root of that anger. The Psalmist is struggling with life and death, what it means to have this life at all, and then what it means to have that life be limited and fragile and messy. In the end, what it reveals is important- that not only can God take this kind of stuff from us, God desires it. We want and need God to be there for us. And I think that’s the way God wants it, too.

I found myself coming back to this Psalm most recently because it does help me remember times when God felt particularly close. Maybe you can relate, but for me it takes work and intention for God to feel close every day. I know on an intellectual level that God is always there, but to feel spiritually connected is another thing, even for someone who does this for a living. What I assume about most people, church-going folks or not, is that God tends to be near at hand only occasionally, either during spiritually recharging mountaintop moments or in the hardest, darkest valleys of life. Those are liminal times and places, in which the distance between heaven and earth seem to come miraculously or desperately close together. But we can’t be climbing mountains all the time, nor would we want the lowest of lows to be our constant companions. That kind of vertical experience of faith is not possible day-to-day, and it doesn’t express the whole of our journey. I’m not sure we talk enough about the ordinary days of faith- how God is with us as we answer emails, or shop for groceries and pay our bills, or even deal with conflict. Nothing about God is ordinary, but life gets that way, and so we struggle to connect the two. And maybe that’s because we haven’t been taught how, or at least we haven’t been asked often enough to consider how we might do it. It sounds simple, but what is simple is not always simplistic.

In her new book, Grounded, Diana Butler Bass writes about this issue for herself, and for the sake of the church in the 21st Century. At one point she is using the spiritual practice of walking a labyrinth to describe what she means. She writes, “Here in the labyrinth, I struggle to find words to describe what I feel. Up on the mountaintop, I [know] the language to describe God: majestic, transcendent, all-powerful. [But,] in this vocabulary, God remains stubbornly located in a few select places, mostly in external realms above or beyond… Like countless others, I have been schooled in vertical theology. Western culture, especially Western Christianity, has imprinted a certain theological template upon the spiritual imagination: God exists far off from the world and does humankind a favor when choosing to draw close… In its crudest form, the role of religion… is to act as a holy elevator between God above and those muddling around down below in the world.”

Now, if I had read this in seminary I would have found it troubling- balked at the audacity of it. I’d have thought, “of course God is all these things because God is sovereign overall and, hello, that is good news! It means we have a God who is in control.” And while that is still true and an important piece of who God is… now, I think, Bass is right. This vertical theology she describes misses the part about the incarnation, the part about God being with us that sets Christianity apart. It doesn’t touch on our individual need to be known and enmeshed in God’s life, and for God to be known, at least in part, by us. It’s the horizontal part of our faith we have a hard time with. It’s the part that says God is relational, neighborly, immanent, fleshy, earthy, broken, poured out, dead and risen… and even though I can come up with those words I probably don’t say them enough. Our default is easier: to keep God up there, or in these walls, and to only connect on Sundays. But, this structure of Christendom that has shaped our whole worldview, is changing, it’s being dismantled, along with many of the other hierarchical institutions around us. People, including me, are seeking a more horizontal faith, and a God that doesn’t live somewhere else, outside of us, veiled in complex theology that is beyond our capacity to understand. As Bass writes, “my soul has a mile-wide mystical streak.” And that resonates with me. Not in a supernatural sort of way, but it’s a description of faith that affirms a wideness, and a wisdom. All of this doesn’t mean we forget certain pieces of our theology, rather it confirms that God cannot be contained- and that God has vastly different ways of being in relationship with God’s people.

The Psalmist begins by praising God for being a dwelling place. It’s a more intimate metaphor, and one that is used throughout scripture. The Gospel of John uses it often, taking a turn from the other three Gospels in the way he talks about God. The word for dwelling is related to the word for womb. It’s an indwelling- that’s how close the Psalmist is to God. A place where one lives, a home to return to. The Psalmist doesn’t describe how the dwelling looks, only that it is has always been there, and it always will be, and that it seems to take the shape of whatever the Psalmist needs. There’s no hierarchy to it, but it is clear that God is God, eternal, and human beings are finite and needy. This, as it turns out, is the Psalmist’s struggle, not proximity to God, but how to fit as much abundance into one life as possible, especially when life seems so short.

I wonder what Christianity would look like if we were less interested in how to figure God out in these vertical systems, less concerned with who is right about God and who is wrong, or who is saved and who isn’t, and more curious about our own day-to-day walk with God? Different, I think. Freer, kinder. More creative. I think that, for the most part, when I feel close to God I am more generous, more justice-oriented, more at peace with what I am good at and even more so at peace with what I’m not good at. I’m less ashamed and more confident in who I am.

The Psalmist prays that God would, “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” and “prosper the work of our hands.” Wisdom and purpose are what the Psalmist wants from God and life. I have to admit, it seems a bit countercultural. Even though the Psalmist finds life to be unbearably short, there is nothing here about Carpe Diem, Sieze the day! YOLO- you only life once! And there’s no prosperity Gospel here, either. Nothing about, ‘prosper our retirement accounts so we can live comfortably in the end!’ The Psalm calls on us to ask: What is important in the end? And will we be in a close and fruitful relationship with God, and one another?

I had the privilege of reading this Psalm at one memorial service in particular- one that I will never forget. My friend Jan. She was a church member where I was previously, in St. Louis. She had also been one of the teachers at the preschool there for almost 30 years. Hundreds of children in this rather small enclave of St. Louis had had Jan as their teacher. She was well known, and beloved by them, and their parents. A beautiful person, inside and out. Jan retired from the preschool and was looking forward to planning the weddings of both of her children, seeing future grandchildren run around in her yard, and growing old with the love of her life, John. But, soon after her retirement at age 60 she was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer. She had never smoked. They treated it, but it spread, and Jan eventually entered hospice. I visited with Jan almost weekly for a few months. We got to know each other well. The thing about Jan was that what made her remarkable was not one thing. She certainly didn’t have a corner office, or a high-paying job. She wasn’t on the board of any important organization. She was a mom, wife, teacher. But, somehow she had one of the fullest lives of anyone I have ever met. She served others. She had countless friends. She practiced hospitality. She saw the beauty in the everyday. One of her friends at the memorial service said that Jan had the gift of making every mom and every dad feel like they were the exact right parent for their child. Jan was wise and prosperous. And she had a relationship with God that she spoke of every time we talked. Of course, she was angry about her diagnosis, and that it was going to shorten her life. But, God could take it. And in the end her life was lived with as much authenticity and grace as anyone I’ve ever met.

Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. Prosper the work of our hands.

Some days I get discouraged, because I feel like wisdom and prosperity defined like this are in short supply. And, I throw myself into the mix of those who have a hard time living this out. It’s easy to buy into the world’s definitions of wisdom and purpose, simpler sometimes to live mindlessly, distant from God, not treating each day as though it is a precious, wonderful, difficult and messy gift. Keeping God up here is more straightforward, more organized- it fits into our ordered society. But, as my Old Testament Professor Terry Fretheim used to say, “God did not intend creation to be a machine…” He writes, “For all the world’s order and coherence, a certain randomness, ambiguity, unpredictability and play characterize its complex life.” Unlike our tendency toward the vertical systems we have created for God- horizontal faith celebrates relationship, between us and God, but also among all people, and all creation. Our faith is not a machine that can be turned on, established, and instituted only when it is convenient- that promotes exclusivity and suffocates. Taken to an extreme, we’ve seen the dangerous ways this has played out over centuries, and even until the last few days in Charlottesville, when vertical theological power becomes twisted, misinterpreted, and used to dehumanize. Horizontal faith, on the other hand, means there’s no power involved, no ego, no money, no walls, no competition.  It’s no wonder the Psalmist uses organic images throughout: mountains, grass, even dust. We are intertwined with God, and all people, and all things, in a beautiful, sacred, web of relationship.

Poet Wendell Berry describes horizontal faith as well as anyone. A farmer and writer from rural Kentucky, Berry has long used creation metaphors to describe his faith and call to environmental justice. His poem “Wild Geese” seems like a modern interpretation of Psalm 90. It touches on life and death, wisdom and purpose, and our relationship with God, which is so much closer than we can believe. I invite you close your eyes, and imagine what he writes,

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end. In time’s maze
over fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves.

We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here.

And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

And it’s true. God is right here, God with us, our dwelling place. Not too far above or beyond our grasp. But, willing us to count our days as precious, and gain a wise heart- reminding us that prosperity and abundance are what has already been given us, in Christ.

Our anthem for today is a song sung by a group called the Wailin’ Jennys. A secular group who sings music that, much like Berry’s poetry, gracefully borders on the sacred. One Voice is layered, it builds, with the sound of one person complimenting another, harmonies ringing together in cooperation. The music and lyrics, at their heart, are trinitarian, which is not hierarchical, but relational. Even within God’s very self- Creator, Christ and Spirit- there is a wideness and inclusivity. God’s very own diversity, God’s very own shape is a dwelling place for each of us, showing us that God is accessible to us all, and to our every need. It is this God who calls us, who desires us, and all we are. This is the God we have right here. God with us.

Thanks be to God for a faith like this. Amen.

Latest Sermons