Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Always look on the bright side

Psalm 102:1-11 (NIV)

Hear my prayer, Lord;
   let my cry for help come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
   when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me;
   when I call, answer me quickly.

For my days vanish like smoke;
   my bones burn like glowing embers.
My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
   I forget to eat my food.
In my distress I groan aloud
   and am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
   like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become
   like a bird alone on a roof.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
   those who rail against me use my name as a curse.
For I eat ashes as my food
   and mingle my drink with tears
because of your great wrath,
   for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
My days are like the evening shadow;
   I wither away like grass.
Want to feel good about your life? Read this part of the 102nd Psalm. If you can read these verses (“My days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers”) and not think, “Wow, this guy writes what I feel,” then you’re probably in pretty good shape in terms of the big picture.

The image of the heart blighted and withered like grass is incredibly evocative for those of us living in the Midwest right about now. I haven’t mowed my lawn since June 16, and I doubt it will need to be done when I get home Wednesday. Our two neighbors to the south have almost zero shade in their back yards, and by now I’m pretty sure you couldn’t find a blade of green grass in either lot. Imaging a heart in a similar state of distress is a horrible vision.

However, I’ve never been so worn down I forgot to eat. When I’m ill, I try not to groan because it just gets the kids’ attention, and when I am sick enough to groan, I am in no mood for parenting. And even my groaniest groans probably are no match for what the Psalmist is trying convey, especially when I try to determine if I’ve ever felt as bad as my lawn looks.

I have no concept of how hungry a person must be in order to waste away to skin and bones. My enemies do not taunt me for the entire day. As I wrote a while back, I don’t really think I have enemies in this sense. I don’t get the sense my name is being used as a curse. I could go on, but the point is clear: the lament here is from someone in seriously dire straits.

And while my life is far, far from perfect, and there are many parts of myself I hope to improve with God’s help, I in no way consider myself in as deep a pit as the person who originated this particular lament. By comparison, I feel like everything is sunshine and roses. Blessings abound, depending on how you choose to define the word. There are so many big picture aspects of life going so well it would feel rude, or perhaps ungrateful, to lament about the minor inconveniences.

As I have walked around a few parts of Portland the last few days, I have noticed dozens of people who are panhandlers or appear to be homeless. This is not the kind of thing you encounter in the suburbs. (Given the weather alone, I can see why someone who can’t reliably find a roof at night would gravitate toward the Northwest.) I’ve spent enough time in Chicago and other cities to not be taken aback my the number of people looking for handouts, and my newspaper gives all sorts of publicity to the local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. I know similar programs exist where I live now, but I am simply not encountering them the way you do people on the street asking for help.

Those are largely physical needs, though, and I’m going to assume the Psalm is just as much about spiritual needs, if not more. And you can’t tell at all how broken a person’s spirit may be. About the least reliable way to guess is by looking at them. Those who have little material wealth may be abundantly rich in spirit. The opposite surely is true. And then there’s the vast majority of us, lingering somewhere between the two extremes.

I’m not going into full detail here about the things I consider blessings and explain why I generally feel life is going well, but I would suggest anyone seeking perspective about any current struggles may consider how much the Psalmist here was battling through a difficult time. And anyone who truly does identify with the distraught emotions expressed herein should do what the Psalmist does right at the outset — pray about it. Seek help from the Lord.

I would hate to come across as saying, “None of you have it as bad as this guy,” for who am I to know what troubles another person and to what degree? But I do intend to try to imbue this approach in my kids. Not so much a “there are children starving in Africa right now so you will finish that mac and cheese!” approach, but a simple understanding that as bad as life seems, it’s probably still pretty good all things considered. The important part is actually considering all things, and not just the immediate rough patch. And sure, some rough patches prove to be very, very serious and require lots of serious effort to negotiate effectively. It would be foolish to proactively dismiss any future challenge as not that big a deal when all is said and done.

But at the end of it all, I’m always going to be a “count your blessings” guy. Count then when you’re riding high or sinking low or just going through the motions of another unremarkable day. They’re everywhere you look, and when you begin to seek them out, your outlook on life can adjust in remarkable fashion.

A prayer for July 17:

Lord, I thank you for being willing to hear my prayers, whether I am happy or sad or fearful or hurting — you are always ready to listen and, if I will listen in return, to reveal to me your will for my life. You will never abandon me in a time of need, and I must remember than I am always in need of more of you in my life. Even when I think the sea is calm, I must continue to seek you out, draw you near and offer my life to you in gratitude, humility, respect and love. It is not always easy, but I owe you my best. Amen.

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