The following is a sermon preached in ACU Graduate Chapel on April 5, 2017.
Sermon Text: Psalm 31:9-16
Words like broken, depressed, grief, sadness, and shattered are not foreign to us as ministers. As a hospital chaplain, I tend to hear these words expressed on a regular basis. I have heard numerous times phrases like “I broke my leg” or “I shattered my pelvis.” In the same way, I have also heard many times “I have a broken heart” or “because of [blank], our relationship is shattered.” And as a minister and a seminary student, I have been trained well to handle these kinds of moments. I have been trained to not speak words that simply “fill the silence” or try to explain away the pain. I have been trained to offer a reassuring and gentle touch when it is needed. I have been trained to help people re-imagine the work of God in their life even in the midst of their worst nightmare. I have been trained to be one of those who helps to pick up the shattered pieces of people’s lives.
But what happens when it is the minister who is broken? What happens when it is you who feels depressed and overcome with the sadness of your life situation? Who do I turn to when my life appears to be falling apart and I can’t even begin to bring myself to pick up the pieces?
The past month or so, these questions have become as real to me as ever. I can honestly say that I have never felt so connected to the psalmist as he pours out his lament as I have recently. This past month, like so many of my months, has been filled with back pain, stomach pain, and headaches. See, you may not know this, but I have been fighting chronic health issues my whole life. I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis over seven years ago, a diagnosis that, although it brought with it some answers, also brought with it incredible back pain that seems to challenge and restrict even the easiest tasks. Ankylosing Spondylitis is an auto-immune disorder that affects the back, the stomach, and the eyes. It affects the immune system. I have suffered with back pain, stomach pain, eye problems, and getting sick easily my entire life, and had no idea until relatively recently that it was a defective gene–not a sports injury or a some other result of my clumsiness–that has been causing me all my discomfort.
Every day I wake up in some kind of pain, and although some days are better than others (and I am thankful for those days), I do my best to not let this pain keep me from living my life. But I would be lying to you if I said it didn’t affect me. I would be lying to you if I said that I didn’t sometimes struggle to do the simplest task without cringing. I would be lying to you if I said that there aren’t days where I cannot even think straight because of the pain. I would be lying to you if I said that I don’t sometimes struggle emotionally because I have to sit on the sidelines … for my body just can’t do it all. This disease is invisible in the fact that no one can see it like they can see a broken leg–and this only adds to the isolation I so frequently feel because of my body’s failures. Let me tell you, some days it is hard to pull myself out of bed in the mornings because I feel absolutely broken.
In addition to my auto-immune disease, I was also diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at the same time, bringing with it a whole new set of problems to work out. And if my body didn’t already deal with enough, I was diagnosed with Celiac disease shortly after. There are some days that I can’t escape my deep pain and brokenness even if I paid someone a million dollars. Some days, regardless of my attitude or positive outlook, my body just can’t do it. Although my health journey is part of my story, I frequently feel that my “life is consumed with sadness,” just like the psalmist.
And this past month has made me feel the most extreme forms of my diseases. Due to this season of my health history, I have experienced migraines, stomach ulcers, and constant back pain. Over the years, I have become an expert at hiding my symptoms and pain. I don’t want to too often expose my brokenness and draw unwanted attention to myself, having other people look differently at me or at my abilities. I have become a pro at quickly and efficiently keeping all of my broken pieces hidden and in the same place as I try to somehow piece Humpty Dumpty back together again. But it turns out that after a while, there are just too many broken pieces everywhere that are impossible to find–and I have absolutely no energy to even pretend to try to piece it all back together again.
In Psalm 31, the psalmist paints a similar picture to the one which I am describing, if not worse. The author here offers up a very accurate picture of human experience. He doesn’t sugarcoat it. He doesn’t pretend his troubles aren’t there. He openly begins detailing the deep despair in his life.
He starts by begging God to have mercy because he is depressed. And his depression isn’t just a mild sadness … he literally can’t see straight because of his grief. His vision fails him, as do his spirit and his body. Everything–his heart, soul, body, morale–is consumed. Every day is full of devastation and groanings. The psalmist can’t muster up the strength to do anything because of what he is experiencing … his bones, his very livelihood, are completely dried up. And if that’s not bad enough, as if he’s not already a big enough mess, his grief doesn’t stay personal. He becomes a joke to everyone in his life–those who he doesn’t even like mock him. But even worse, his neighbors and friends do too.… His depression and brokenness scare his friends, and everyone avoids him because of all his issues. He feels invisible. Forgotten. Like he doesn’t even exist. And yet it seems like his invisibility is short-lived, for he begins to hear the gossip against him. He hears the voices which begin to question, challenge, and destroy his very being. He thinks his life is about to end with nothing to show for it but his grief. He is dried up, terrorized, and unable to take it anymore.
He feels like a piece of pottery that has been completely shattered.
But then, like a jack-in-the-box toy which has been wound up tight to its very end, he suddenly bursts forth with the most startling and beautiful statement.
But I trust you, Lord.
You are my God.
My future is in your hands. Don’t hand me over to my enemies, but instead, shine your face on your servant, save me by your faithful love. (Ps 31:14-15 CEB)
Regardless of his pain, his utter despair, his brokenness, he turns to God as the foundation of his trust. He doesn’t affirm his training, his abilities, or his workload. He doesn’t try to hide his pain. But instead, he affirms his trust in God.
The phrase “I trust in you, Lord” is a phrase which our culture too often uses as only a lip service to avoid quick advice from others. It is used perhaps just to avoid the lecture from someone to simply “have more faith.” Also, I have seen this phrase used to hide the pain which exists in a very real way within a person. It has become empty in meaning.
But it is not an empty phrase for the psalmist. No, this phrase “I trust in you, Lord…I affirm you are my God” is anything but empty. It is an honest expression of a deep and utter trust in God that claims that no circumstance, no pain, has an effect on this trust. This affirmation reveals someone who knows that God is the only source of this trust. The psalmist knows that God is the only one who can pick up the pieces.
This affirmation by the psalmist is powerful because … I get it. You get it. We get it. We know what it’s like to trust in our own ability and fail. We know what it’s like to feel tired and shattered due to our workload, health circumstances, or finances. We know what it’s like to feel agony deep within our bones on days when it seems that everyone is against us–even God. We know what it’s like to feel helpless and invisible as we try to quickly pick up the pieces of our broken lives without anyone noticing.
And perhaps, at this very moment, you are only one paper, one diagnosis, one bad headache, one email, one flat tire away from completely losing it. Perhaps you are only one minute away from watching your life shatter into a million pieces.
When this happens, what will you do? Where will you turn?
My brothers and sisters, today, at this very moment, may we affirm as a community of believers that we trust in the Lord.
May we boldly proclaim to God, “You are our God.”
May we follow the model of the psalmist and state our unwavering trust in God regardless of our circumstance.
May we recognize that our futures are in God’s hands, being reminded that God has been there in the past, is here now, and will be there in the future.
May we recognize that, although this trust is not easy or natural to us and may even be frustrating at first, that our God is worthy of this trust and full of loving kindness and mercy.
Today, may we all proclaim, even in the midst of our varying brokenness, that we trust in the Lord to pick up the pieces.
Go in peace.