July 3, 2011

"When Your Life Plays Country Music"
W. Gregory Pope, preaching

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Psalm 13


Nothing expresses the heart’s lament and the soul’s despair like country music.  We appreciate Ryan Walker helping us develop that theme this morning.  Where you else do find words like:

Reba singing: Last night I prayed the Lord my soul to keep, and then I cried myself to sleep

Sammi Smith crying out: Help me make it through the night

George Jones crooning:  Imagine a world where no music was playing / And think of a church with nobody praying / Have you ever looked up at a sky with no blue? / Then you’ve seen a picture of me without you.

And there are others like:

I’m so miserable without you, it’s like having you here

I bought the shoes that just walked out on me

I went back to my fourth wife
for the third time
and gave her a second chance
to make a first class fool out of me

I’ve got tears in my ears for lying on my back in my bed missin’ you

Billy broke my heart at Walgreens and I cried all the way to Sears

I’m gettin’ gray from being blue

I’ve been flushed from the bathroom of your heart

I think that’s enough to make the point.  As Erma Bombeck put it: Nobody, but nobody, does misery like country music.

It is a little known fact that country music originated in ancient Israel.  We heard read the first country song of Israel in their prayer book / hymn book we know as the book of Psalms.

Number 13 begins with a question we hear and ask all the time:  HOW LONG?

It’s a question you hear in cars.  Over and over again, little voices from the back seat, asking the same question every 2.7 miles: “How long ‘til we get there?”

“How long?” is a question you hear in homes: “How long until supper is ready?  How long is it going to take you to get dressed?  How long before these installments will be paid off?”  My five-year old mama’s boy always wants to know when she is absent:  “How long til mommy gets home?”

“How long?” is a question you hear in churches:  “How long do you think this sermon is going to last?  How long before he says something remotely meaningful?”

“How long?” is a question you hear in hospitals:  “How long will the surgery take?  How long before she can go back to work?  Doctor, how long do you think he will live?”

If you live long at all, you will ask the common yearning question, “How long?”

How long can we keep this marriage together?  How long can I live with this pain?  How long can I keep going like this?  How long will this darkness last?

“How long?” is a question for all people and all times.  And no one can teach us how to ask our questions and express our lament like the Psalter poet of ancient Israel.

Listen to him. Listen to her.  He has stood about all he can stand.  Life is just too much for her.  He is telling God the truth.  She is asking God for help.

How long, O Lord?
Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear this pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
Look upon me and answer me, O Lord.
How long is life going to be like this?
How long?  How long?

Why was the psalmist so miserable and despairing?  What do you think?  What makes you cry “how long?” to God?  What fear, what pain, what sorrow, what embarrassment, what darkness makes you bathe your face with tears and soak your pillow with weeping?  What can make you wonder if God is hiding from you or forgetting about you?  What makes you stare up to God with yearning eyes and call out to God with trembling lips, “How long?”

Sometimes it is fear that makes us ask, “How long, O Lord, until I am no longer awakened at three in the morning with knots in my stomach?”

Sometimes it is embarrassment that makes us ask God, How long, O Lord, how long will I keep recalling my stupidity and reliving my mistakes?

Sometimes it is shame that makes us ask, “How long, O Lord, until I can look in the mirror without feeling this awful load of guilt?”

Sooner or later, “How long?” will be your song. What can we do when the lament of “how long?” becomes the theme song of our life?

I think the second most important thing we can do is remember that most of our troubles do have an end.  This is not escapism.  It is realism.  When we are paralyzed in the middle of a dark night, it seems it will last forever.  But the truth is, time does pass and troubles do end.  Wounded pride heals.  Shame goes away.  Grief’s pangs become less frequent and severe.  Fears dissolve.

Time does not heal all wounds (country music wisdom notwithstanding).  God heals all wounds. But God usually heals us within the context of the passage of time.  Most often there is simply no substitute for the passage of time.

But what if “how long?” turns out to last a lifetime?  What about the person who, like Abraham, “dies not having received the promise.”  Sometimes people die with an unresolved “how long?” on their lips.  We cannot explain, explain away, or understand the life-long pain that some people bear.

In the face of life’s unanswered “how longs?” all I know to do, the most important thing I know to do is to put my life in the hands of the God whom we know in Jesus Christ.  The God whom millions have experienced and testified can be trusted.

Frederick Buechner tells a remarkable story about the time in his life when the Buechner family was going through a dreadful darkness.  Buechner had pulled over to the side of a highway and was just sitting there on a roadside, immobilized by helplessness and fear.

As he sat there, he looked up and saw an approaching car with one of those license plates that spell a word.  As the car drew near and drove past,  Buechner read the letters on the front and back license plates  - T R U S T.  Trust.  He took it as a word from God.  He later learned that the owner of the car worked in the Trust department of a bank.  But that didn’t matter.  He still took it as a word from God that came to him in the midst of his awful pain and deep fear.

I offer that word to you today: TRUST.  I offer it to you as a word from God.  The God who can be trusted.

Our country music psalmist learned that lesson.  He concluded his litany of despair with a rousing descant of trust.  The song that began “How long will you forget me O Lord?” ends like this: “I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord who has dealt bountifully with me.”

It’s almost like your country music life is being played backward.  And yes, for those of you uncultured in the cowboy art of country music, there is a song about what happens when you play a country song backwards.  Among other things, it says:

You get your house back, your dog back, your best friend Jack back,
you get your truck back, your hair back,
your first and second wives back,
your front porch swing, your pretty little thing
your bling bling bling and a diamond ring
your farm and the barn and the boat and the Harley
your mind back, your nerves back, your achey breaky heart back,
your pride back, your life back
and on and on it goes.

Life on the other side of “how long?” rarely ever returns to life just the way it was before “how long?”  And that’s not all bad.  For many have been known to come back from “how long?” on the other side with a deeper trust, a stronger faith, a greater love.

This morning I would ask you to consider a different set of “how long?” questions.  These are questions I’m learning to ask myself.  Questions like these:

How long will God listen to you?
How long will God be at work in your life?
How long will God mean to do you good?
How long will God remember your finest moment?
How long will God accept you, forgive you, and save you by God’s grace?
How long will God believe in you and stand with you
      and hold you up with God’s comforting strength?
How long will God carry you in the warmth of God’s loving embrace?
How long will God make a place for you at God’s everlasting table?

How long?

If with whatever measure of trust you can muster you answered “FOREVER!” then all is not lost, the good news of the gospel is that all will be found; all is not dark, one day you will see again. The light of hope still burns in your God-beloved heart.

There is an early 20th century poet, Charles Gabriel, that can help you sing a new song.  Many of you have sung it all your life.

In loving-kindness Jesus came
My soul in mercy to reclaim
And from the depths of sin and shame
Through grace he lifted me.

From sinking sand he lifted me
With tender hand he lifted me
From shades of night to plains of light
O praise his name, he lifted me.

The biblical witness is sure:

       The Eternal God is our dwelling place 
      and underneath 
      underneath forever 
      are the everlasting arms.

And nothing, nothing, nothing, will ever separate you from the love of God.  Amen.