The Lectionary this morning has us reading the whole of Psalm 73. If you have the time, it is well worth it for you to get the whole context of this magnificent poem. When I was still in college, some 35 years ago, God gave me the verses below as an encouragement to stick with him, no matter what:
When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward you.
Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord GOD my refuge,
that I may tell of all your works.
(Psalm 73:21-28 ESV)
After 35 years of reading this psalm over and over, something was highlighted to me this morning that sort of startled me. Asaph writes, "When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart..." My first response was, "I've never been embittered." But in truth, I have.
One of the things every man has to come to terms with as he ages is that feeling that he could have done more; that he could have been more. John Eldridge, writing in the excellent opening chapters of Wild at Heart addresses this when he says that "every man's deepest fear (is) to be exposed, to be found out, to be discovered as an impostor, and not really a man... If there's one thing a man does know he knows he is made to come through. Yet he wonders...Can I? Will I? When the going gets rough, when it really matters, will he pull it off?" (p. 45)
Anyone who has read Eldridge's book would have to say he has a very particular view of what makes a man "wild." I, for one, can't see myself bungie jumping off a cliff in Colorado any time soon. But I totally resonate with Eldridge in this: a man needs to have something he's passionate about and totally sold out to. The problem with most modern men is that we have invested all that passion in something we call a "career." And when career fails you or when you find yourself between two careers, as I have, it can be pretty depressing. Tom Lehrer, who started life as a math prof at Harvard and made a minor splash on TV in the early '60s writing parody songs based on current events on That Was the Week that Was put it this way, "It is a sobering thought that by the time Mozart was my age he'd been dead for 15 years." For a man who put a lot of stock in his musical ability, that was a real ouch.
But man or woman, what embitters a soul is loss of passion. But generally (and I do know I'm making a gross generalization here), I think men and women experience loss of passion in different ways. I'll leave the rest of that thinking for you to figure out. I can really only speak for myself. My embitterment came in not being able to hang onto.
What do I mean by that? Hanging onto is the idea that everything that comes into my life should stay there. If I have gained position or money or relationships or abilities, I should have enough smarts, enough power, enough energy, yes... enough love, to make them stay. And so I have always met life like someone who badly needed Ex-lax. There is a kind of clenched-fist constipation that goes with the thought that by dint of will a person can hang onto what he has. And of course, what you discover after a while is that you cannot hang onto things, cannot hang onto abilities, cannot hang onto people. And the harder you try, the more painfully those things go when they go. Watching the last season of the career of a great athlete can be very painful indeed. Since those things were mine by right (because God gave them to me), I am not to blame when I can't hang onto them. God is to blame, for he took them away without cause. At least, that is what it feels like.
This is what the psalmist means when he says, "When I was pricked in heart." A person can go on quite a while in this constipated state. Sure, you're in pain. A needle in the heart will do that to you. A log in the gut that you refuse to let go of takes all the fun out of whatever it is you're trying to hang onto. And it causes you... at least it caused me to become brutish and ignorant.
Anyone who knows me well is asking right now how the word brutish could possibly describe me. There are lots of kinds of beasts in the world. No, I've never been a bull in a china shop. I have always cast myself more as the father in The Berenstain Bears. In my fantasy construct I'm more likely to knock things over in the china shop by accident than by intent. I say "fantasy" because no one is really that clumsy. But clumsiness can cover up for lack of passion. I am excused from trying if I am simply not able.
But before you start writing notes of encouragement because you think the poor fellow is being hard on himself, look at the next line of the psalm and that great word, "nevertheless". "Nevertheless, I am continually with you... and afterward you will receive me to glory."
For most people, I think, redemption works like a very long childhood of training rather than a momentary blinding revelation after which our sin is ended. We are not so much the alcoholic who comes to Christ and the next day loses all desire for liquor, though I know that does happen at times. My redemption from hanging onto the wrong things is coming through a most unlikely passion: cooking. I tried motorcycles, chainsaws, fire, and alcohol in an effort to express the passion for life that Eldridge talks about after my career in youth ministry came to an end. No angel came down to tell me how to navigate life after 50. There was no sudden signpost to tell me "this is the way." But God has taught me so much about passion and ability, about creating and then letting go of what you create through the slow process of becoming a self-taught chef.
Jama has asked me if I want to take classes and really learn how. Maybe I will one day. Right now I need to focus on becoming fully employed again. While I love to cook, I still haven't got the point where I think I'd like to do it as a job. Something about the "have to" takes away the "want to" in me. More healing for another day there.
But now I find that I am no longer a clumsy bear alone in a china shop, embarrassed by all the breakage. I am, rather, a child in the china shop with Dad. He has to hold my hand because he knows I will knock into and knock over many of the beautiful pieces on display if left to my own devices. I wouldn't mean to. I just haven't learned how to do it yet. Every once in a while Dad lets go of my hand to see if I will stick close by. Have I learned that is the only safe place for me?
As time goes on and the training progresses, I don't need to hold his hand. I learn that "for me it is good to be near God," and I stick close to Dad. When the training has really had its full effect, I take hold of his hand again, not because he insists, but because I so badly want to hang onto the one thing I actually can.
Pastoral Relief and Retreat
- Wethersfield, CT, United States
- I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.