The Safe Place
I am thinking today about the impermanence of things.
My wife and I used to shop at the Pharm, a drug store downtown. They stocked lots of groceries too; it was handy. But the Pharm closed. We used to shop at Country Market on South Main St. But it closed too.
Years back I read Charles Lindquist’s book on the history of Adrian. Time and again he’d mention something in Adrian at a certain place and time, and I’d imagine the location, and it wasn’t there anymore. Even in a stable community like Adrian, there is an impermanence to things. New things spring up, but old things you depend on disappear.
People are impermanent too. Tuesday night we had our annual church conference. Every church has an annual meeting, and one thing you do typically is work on the membership rolls. New members go on the rolls, and former members are removed. On Tuesday we removed the names of 18 people who died in the last year. They were people you knew and loved, people who once sat in this sanctuary with us. Their absence now is a sad reminder of the impermanence of things.
Do you know the difference between a match and the sun in the sky? Apart from size, the main difference between a match and the sun is the amount of time it takes for them to go out. A match goes out in a few seconds; the sun takes longer, but it will eventually go out too. They both have a finite amount of fuel to burn.
There is an impermanence built deeply into all things. I struggle with it. Perhaps you do to. Turn with me now to the scriptures, to Psalm 90, and let’s see what it has to say to our theme of impermanence.
There are two schools of thought on the origin of Psalm 90. One school says it was written by Moses; the other says it was attributed to Moses, but written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. I opt for the latter approach, seeing Psalm 90 as a liturgical response to the crisis of exile and all the heartbreak and loss that entailed.
Psalm 90 today is often read at funerals. I’ve read it aloud by many graves. After the heartache of loss, which plunges people into their own exile, there is beauty and comfort in its words:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were born,
before you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past
or like a watch in the night.
A watch in the night was three hours long. For God, a thousand years or three hours — it makes no difference. There is a rich contrast in this psalm between our life and God’s life, our time and God’s time (which is eternity), our impermanence and God’s permanence, that is, God’s undying, unending life. In times of loss, dwelling on God’s permanence is a comfort to the heart.
My favorite line is verse 12: “So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” When we number our days, when we realize that our days have a finite number, we begin to be wise and we cherish each day as the precious gift that it is.
In numbering your days, there is an app for that! (There’s an app for everything now.) It’s here on my phone. I put in the date of my birth and today’s date, and it tells me the number of my days now is 18,808. I don’t know what the final number will be, but it will be finite. Knowing this helps me cherish each one as a gift.
Now I must address a challenge in this psalm. There is hard language here about God’s wrath toward us. You see it especially in verses 7, 9, and 11. What do we do with this? This is difficult for me, and I do not know how to reconcile it with a belief in God’s goodness and loving presence with us.
There was a common belief in Bible times that if bad things happened it mean God was angry and was punishing us. So when Jerusalem was destroyed, the prophets said it meant God was angry with the people and was punishing them for their sins. Even today, you hear people who have gone through hard times say, “God must be mad at me.”
I do not subscribe to this belief, that in wrath God punishes us for our sins. (God may well be angry at injustice in the world, as we are, but that is another issue.) So when I come across language about God’s wrath, about God afflicting us for our sins, as this psalm says, I must simply bracket that language and set it aside. I don’t know what to do with it.
It’s like the ugly sweater in the closet. You have one, don’t you? Uncle Herman gave it to you for your birthday, so you can’t get rid of it; but you can’t wear it either because it’s so ugly. You put the ugly sweater in your closet and wear other things. There are verses and places in the Bible like this — you can set them aside and choose to wear something else.
In Psalm 90 I choose to focus on positive things, things that lift my spirit and encourage my heart. I chose to focus on God’s permanence, God’s undying life, which is the antidote to my impermanence and the impermanence of things around me. I choose to focus on God’s steadfast love, which is new for us each morning (verse 14). I choose to focus on the work God gives us to do in life (v. 17).
But mostly, I focus on this beautiful idea of God as our “dwelling place” at the beginning of Psalm 90. We live in God, and God lives in us — these are two sides of the same reality. There is within an abiding connection with the living, undying, permanent God who made all things. When I am beset by heartbreak, loss, and exile, my comfort and security lie in knowing God and being known by God, loving God and being loved by God. This is how Psalm 90 encourages my heart.
We have a black and white dog named Jazz. She is a Hurricane Katrina rescue dog. (It’s a long story how we ended up with her.) We will come home and find the remnants of something in the living room. Jazz has eaten something she shouldn’t have. Oh, like a pound of butter! Or something else we accidently left out. So we’ll call her in and say, “Did you do this?” She won’t make eye contact with us, and at her earliest chance she’ll trot down the hall to a back room with her kennel in it. Her kennel has a blanket flap covering the front and lots of cushioning inside. Jazz loves her kennel. And when she’s in trouble, that’s where she goes till the wrath of the human passes. The kennel is her safe place.
We all have safe places in life, places we feel secure. Psalm 90 teaches us to see God as our safe place. When all else fails in our impermanent life, God will not fail. And the very impermanence of things teaches us to place our trust in God as our only true and lasting safe place.
Now someone here today may be thinking, “That’s all fine, preacher, if I believed in God. I used to, but I don’t believe in God anymore. So do you have anything for me, preacher?” I imagine there is at least one person in this room who is thinking this, and my thoughts now are directed to you. I have two words for you: Pascal’s Wager.
Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician 350 years ago. He invented the first computer. He was a brilliant man, with a strong interest in faith, religion, and spirituality. He said belief in God is like a wager. If you believe in God, or if you believe there is no God, you don’t know for certain whether you are right nor not. Either belief has risk to it. Either way you are making a kind of wager. It is in your best interest, Pascal said, to wager that God exists, to believe in God, for you have everything to gain from that belief and nothing to lose if you are wrong. If you get to the next life and discover there is no God and no next life — only oblivion — then you don’t lose anything because there will be no ‘you’ left to lose out. Meanwhile, in this life you have gained all the benefits a belief in God will bring, such as emotional comfort and the support of a faith community. So even if you are wrong, you still win.
Turn things around now. Say you wager that God does not exist. There is so much suffering in the world, you say, how could there be a loving God? You choose to believe in no-God. That’s your wager. But you have nothing to gain from this belief, and you have potentially a lot to lose if you are wrong. This belief brings you no benefits in this life. You are all alone in the universe. Then you get to the next life and discover — surprise! — there is a God after all, and you have made no effort even to begin a relationship with this God. You end up losing if your belief is wrong. It is better for you to wager that God is and to live now as if God is.
What I am asking you to do today is to walk the path of faith. I am less inclined now to see faith as a tidy set of beliefs I can check off one by one. I am more apt to see faith as a path through the woods. To walk the path is to walk by faith. I cannot see far ahead on the path. I do not know what is around the next bend. I cannot transcend the path but only walk it. So I walk the path of faith, mile by mile, day by day. I trust the path, I trust the one who showed me the path, I trust the path leads somewhere good and full of blessing.
Walk the path of faith today. If you haven’t walked by faith in a while, put on your shoes and get back on the path. You will be surprised, you will be astonished, at where it takes you.