Sunday, January 19, 2014

"It Is Good to Praise the Lord..."

“It is good to praise the Lord…”

Psalm 92:1a

What a simple but powerful sentence.  “It is good to praise the Lord…”  Nothing political or even religious.  Just an idea.  A suggestion.  A discipline and a practice that might make my day better.  Something that might make me happy and peaceful.  Something to keep me present and grateful.  Something simple.
Very few things in life seem simple.  With regard to my spiritual journey, my faith once seemed simple and straightforward.  I had problems and questions, but most things seemed black-and-white.  My belief was that if I were just faithful then the answers would be clear, if not always good, and if I were unfaithful, then that also was clear. Then I hit the inevitable spiritual crisis. 
I say “inevitable” not to be negative, but to state that growth usually causes or is caused by a crisis, a milestone or a change and these are rarely easy.  In my mind, however, the transition should be relatively short-lived (maybe a few months or even a few years at the most, like puberty) and then I would arrive at a new level of spiritual knowledge or understanding.  But my spiritual crisis has gone on for years.
I’m not going to share the specifics of my particular crisis.   I’m not even sure what my questions are.  All I can say is that things are rarely simple.  I’m not asking for easy, but simple would be nice.  For example, I once worked with a job-searching client.  He hadn’t had any luck in his job search for months and in despair he went to see a pastor.  The pastor said, “Your problem is that you haven’t been walking with God.  You need to renew your faith.”
So the man started reading the Bible again, something he admittedly hadn’t done for a long time…and the next day he got a job.  When I heard this I felt like Charlie Brown when he said, “Aaaaaaaaaarrrrgggh!!!!”
It’s not that I wasn’t happy for him.  What bothered me was the simplistic and formulaic answer to a painful problem.  What of all those who read the Bible regularly and still struggle with unemployment, ill health, ongoing personal troubles, financial struggles or spiritual crises?  A friend told me it disturbs her when she sees the news reports of a neighborhood fire in which all but one of the houses is gutted.  The man’s whose house was spared will say, “God was faithful.” 
Again: “Aaaaaaaaaarrrrgggh!!!!”
Does that mean God was unfaithful to the rest of the neighborhood?  Was He mad at them?  Was He punishing them?  Was the man whose home was spared especially-favored by God over that of his neighbors? 
My problem, as I said, is with simplistic and formulaic answers, because they seem to lack justice and fairness.  By definition, they judge others directly or indirectly.  They leave some people in the club and everyone else out, and one can only gain admission by subscribing to group norms. To be “in the club” I must fully and completely subscribe to a particular line of thought.  In the book of Job, Job’s friends told him that the reason he was suffering so much was because there must have been some sin in his life and if he would just confess and repent, things would be good again.  Hundreds of years later, many people still think the same.
Nor is this way of thinking restricted to spiritual beliefs.  Political discussions are usually anything but politic.  They’re full of anger and venom.  As much as I’d like to excoriate my Republican friends for shortsightedness and an unwillingness to listen, I remember how embarrassed I was when two of my Democrat friends savaged a Republican friend during a Facebook discussion.  I apologized to my Republican friend who was far more gracious.  Though I disagreed with him politically, he was right because of the way he handled himself. 
The black-and-white, us-vs-them mentality is everywhere.  On a comic book fan page on Facebook were over a hundred comments on who contributed more to Marvel Comics, Stan Lee or Jack Kirby.  Name-calling and vitriol ensued.  In an education program I was in, there was this sense that we, as new teachers, had all the answers and our job was to go and correct all the experienced teachers who just didn’t know any better.  It goes on and on.  Everyone believes they have the answers.
I think it’s dangerous, very dangerous, to believe that any one person, system or faith has all the answers to everything.  Though I’ve often wished otherwise, I believe that ambiguity and uncertainty are gifts from God.  They cause us to grow, to search, to discover and learn.  They make life harder, but they make life more interesting as well.  When I admit I don’t know or that I could be wrong, I become humble, human, more lovable and more loving.  For that reason alone, I believe God allows complexity.  If I am not growing, I am either dying or dead.  If I am asking questions and struggling, then I am fully alive.  It can be painful, but at least I’m alive, and this pain will not kill me.
At the risk of self-contradiction, I believe that life is simple for some.  Maybe the unemployed man did need to get back to God and perhaps unemployment was God’s way of getting his attention.  Maybe the man whose house was spared from the fire was now given the responsibility to care for his neighbors.  Maybe he wasn’t spared, but given a different kind of test.  Even the simple answers may not be so simple. 
So it is good to praise the Lord, because He is good.   Life is a journey and an adventure, which is a privilege.  I’ve been given an open mind, which is also a privilege.   It must, however, come with an open heart.  When I praise the Lord, when I am grateful and present and peaceful, life is simple.   I’m focused on the joy and the privilege of the moment, of the gifts God has given me.  I can Get Started and Keep Going.