When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your love, O LORD, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul. (Psalm 94.18-19)
Knowing the Ropes
A longtime client once took me to lunch to talk over a serious challenge he faced. In reward for turning around a division in decline, his superiors put him in charge of another group whose business and morale were in worse shape than the first. The previous assignment involved rejuvenating the employees’ pride and commitment—no small task, but one he achieved with surprising speed by urging his management team to model behaviors they desired. The new situation wouldn’t be as simple and clear-cut, he told me, as the preceding VP had completely mangled his managers’ trust by pitting them against each other. Paranoia, cynicism, and rogue posturing prevailed at every level of the organization. “They have no faith in anyone,” Bill lamented, “and without that, I can’t do my job. How can we teach them without trust we’re doomed to fail?”
We kicked around a few ideas, but none got down to the nitty-gritty—visceral awareness that overcoming trust issues requires taking risks and confronting fear. “We need to force them to rely on each other,” Bill said. With that, the solution became very simple. We pulled his managers together at an off-season ski resort, where they ran a gantlet of exercises in which each person’s safety and success depended on teammate support. The regimen built to a climactic test. Each manager had to cross a rope bridge. The teammates’ ability to keep the ropes taut and balanced at all four anchor points determined the crosser’s stability. The risk was minimal; the bridge barely left the ground. But the point was made and later reinforced in the debriefing session, where managers learned they’d been evaluated solely on how well they supported their peers. They dubbed the eye-opening experience “the ropes.” Knowing the ropes—the metaphor for personal skill and savvy—turned into a mantra for mutual trust that results in common success. It transformed them and their business.
Caught in the Slide
We like to picture following Jesus as a sure-footed ascent to faith’s summit. While we’ve got the destination right, our characterization of the trek may need some revision. Discovering we’ve undertaken a mighty hard climb riddled with risk often sends us reeling into doubt. Are we up to this? Add to that leaders who, for no discernable reason, leverage anxieties to pit us against each other, and you’ve got a formula for failure. We lose traction. We sense we’re falling behind, but we’re unsure how to maintain our grip and momentum. We lose trust—in people assigned to guide and protect us, in one another, and in our own self-worth and strength. We face a very serious challenge, one that can easily escalate into a make-or-break situation. We’re slipping and wherever we look, no one seems to notice or care. Furthermore, the actions we see and words we hear suggest God doesn’t notice or care. This sounds ridiculous when we’re making headway. But when we’re slipping, that’s how it feels.
The composer of Psalm 94 is slipping. His/her leaders have exchanged God’s ordinances for their own imperatives. They’re arrogant, oppressive, and ruthless. (v4-5) Their killer instincts target the very groups God commanded them to protect—widows, foreigners, and orphans. (v6) They counter protests by saying, “God’s not paying attention.” (v7) The psalmist looks around and writes in verse 8: “Take heed, you senseless ones among the people; you fools, when will you become wise?” It’s as though she/he woke up in a horror film, surrounded by carnage and insensate villains run amok. One sees the poet standing in the street, screaming, “What’s happening?” The inertia of wrongdoing and apathy is what’s scary here. The psalmist watches society slipping and fears getting caught in the slide. There’s no one in sight to anchor his/her trust and assure her/his safety and success. Verse 16 laments, “Who will rise up for me against the wicked? Who will take a stand for me against evildoers?”
Here’s what we take away from Psalm 94. The poet’s certitude that what’s happening displeases God creates traction to trust God. While others slide into a morass of self-interest,indifference, and disobedience, the writer cries out for help: “When I said, ‘My foot is slipping,’ your love, O LORD, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.” (v18) I like to think, in the middle of the carnage and chaos, the psalmist began to sing Psalm 121, one of the songs of ascents that Israel sang during its annual processions to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: “I lift my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber.” (v1-3) God is paying attention. He senses the writer’s fears of sliding backward with the crowd. He knows the ropes. “Your love supported me… Your consolation brought joy to my soul.”
For 20 years, my partner, Walt, made his living as a TV news writer. Sometimes jokingly, more often regretfully, he’d say, “Good news is no news.” This bears remembering in our age of reactionary religion and politics. It’s easy to lose our grip with backsliders surfacing in every news cycle. Every slip by arrogant leaders and senseless followers receives full coverage. The pessimism on the air hangs in the air, leading us to think God is oblivious to our spiritual violence and treachery. But the rogues won’t escape His scrutiny, and we needn't fear getting caught in their slide. When it appears no one else cares how far we’ve slid, we cry, “My foot is slipping!” Divine love braces us. Consolation that God is in control restores our joy. Traction returns to enable us to keep climbing. We look up, lifting our eyes to faith’s summit. Help comes from our consummately present, observant, and powerful God. He will not let us slip.
In a world of cynics and rogues, it often feels like we’re losing traction and sliding with them away from God. But His love supports us. We're safe and secure. He knows the ropes.