Sunday, January 16, 2011

Conclusion Jumpers

May those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!” be appalled at their own shame. But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who long for your saving help always say, “The LORD is great!” (Psalm 40.15-16)

Time Will Tell

Short of “I hate you,” I can think of nothing worse than telling a child, “You’ll never amount to anything.” To innocent ears, it decrees total lack of faith, and coming from a parent, teacher, or any other authority figure, it carries the crushing weight of credibility. Children haven’t the knowledge or experience to repudiate their elders. They don’t know that vile people who say such things are projecting their own sense of failure and lack of self-worth on them. Although they may figure it out when they get older, maturity also alerts them to the utter cruelty of the remark. In the worst cases, the prediction takes root. The child expects to fail and does, inadvertently lending credence to the prophecy. The pattern is set for life.

If we’ve been spared such crippling malice—and I pray most of us have—it’s still likely somewhere in life we’ll cross paths with people who blatantly undervalue our talents and sincerity. As long as we don’t do anything that upsets their equilibrium, we’re fine. They’ve got us in a box. But let us break “the norm” and they waste no time telling us why we can’t possibly succeed. If necessary, they call for reinforcements to ratify their views. In matters of faith, they go straight to the top, insisting God does not approve. “Homosexuality is sin; you can't be gay and follow Christ.” Or, “God never meant for women to be ordained as priests and pastors. You're asking too much.” Or, “Unless you comply with all the rules, you'll never be a real Christian.” Whatever the complaint, the formula’s the same: it’s our way or else. Of course, we know that’s not so. It makes no sense to pull a Scripture here and another there to construct a doctrine that bears no resemblance to God’s nature revealed in all of Scripture or Christ’s teaching and example. It’s the message tucked inside the protest that hurts—a total lack of faith that says, “You’ll never amount to anything.” What do we with that? What can we say? This is especially painful for believers who may not be as conversant in Scripture and theological traditions as their naysayers. Psalm 40 provides a superb model to adopt. It tells us to let conclusion jumpers be. If we’re faithful and sincere, we need not answer our critics at all. Time will tell.

Revolutionary Discovery

The psalm is best known for its marvelous opening stanza (v1-3):

I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.

He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire;

He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.

He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.

Many will see and fear the LORD and put their trust in him.

David’s so overcome by God’s goodness to him, he skips summarizing the situation to exult in its aftermath. All we’ve got is a metaphor. He was mired down, which might mean anything from a temporary impasse to debilitating depression. God rescued him, set him aright, and gave him a new song. The second stanza (v4-5) gives us a taste of the song, while the next (v6-8) explains what’s new about it. And it’s really new—controversially new—sure to shock David’s audience. “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—but my ears you have opened—burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.” (v6) One imagines gasps, horrified stares, and heads turning every which way, as the congregants ask, “Did he say God doesn’t want sacrifices and offerings? Has he lost his mind?” Evidently David has, because after he commits to live by his revolutionary discovery, he spends stanza four (v9-10) assuring God he will do it boldly, without apology: “I do not seal my lips, LORD, as you know… I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness from the great assembly.”

The great assembly—just reading that, we think, “Uh-oh.” We rescan the crowd, noting the changed affect of the Old Guard married to tradition and the easily disgruntled conclusion jumpers. Concerned scowls replace their ghastly initial reaction. They’ve tuned David out entirely. They’ll not hear one more word. He’s obviously confused. This can never amount to anything. They’ve got to rein him in before his foolishness catches on. But David’s no fool. Although he knows what they think, he keeps singing. Indeed, he audaciously starts to improvise, turning his song into a prayer for deliverance. “Troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see,” he confesses in verse 12. Whatever mired him down earlier is no comparison with the mess he’s in now. (Anyone who’s tangled with church folks can relate.) “Come quickly, LORD, to help me,” verse 13 cries. Then something truly wonderful happens.

Our Song

Between verses 13 and 14, David seems to recognize he’s also jumping to conclusions. Anticipating the naysayers and conclusion jumpers' response, he’s dropped his new song to their weary key. It’s as though he never knew God’s grace, like he’s never been in a pit, like he’s forgot the importance of waiting patiently for God to remedy his circumstances. While those outraged by David’s radical belief get set to tell him what’s what, he leaves them to God. “May all who want to take my life be put to shame and confusion; may all who desire my ruin be turned back in disgrace,” he prays. “May those who say to me, ‘Aha! Aha!’ be appalled at their own shame. But may all who see you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who long for your saving help always say, ‘The LORD is great!’” (v14-16)

Here’s what we can’t lose sight of when confronted by naysayers and conclusion jumpers: They’ve not been where we’ve been. They’ve not known the same kinds of mercy and grace we have. They’ve not been lifted from our pits. They’ve not waited patiently for God to set their lives aright in the same ways. They’ve not seen God as we have. They can’t rejoice and be glad like we can. They’ve not been given our new song. That’s the only reason we disturb them. Had they been in our place, they too would sing our tune.

Because our song shocks them is no cause to stop singing. Though they predict our failure and warn of our ruin, our song goes on. Though they point to Bibles, pull out doctrines, and bellow, “Aha!” our song goes on. We sing it boldly, without apology, in the proper key. David ends with a hushed coda that admits his weaknesses and confesses, “You are my help and my deliverer; you are my God, do not delay.” (v17) We can't waste strength we need on conflicts we won't resolve. We let God deal with those who jump to conclusions about our beliefs and what we’ll amount to. Our song leads back to God, our Help and our Deliverer. Keep singing. Time will tell.

Why wouldn’t people be shocked by our song? It’s new. It sounds too radical. It’s a song many won’t understand or accept because they’ve not been where we’ve been.


jake said...

What an incredible post! Happy Sunday, Tim (and Walt)!

Tim said...

Thanks, Jake. It's an incredible psalm! I trust you and Cody are also enjoying a wonderful Sunday!