Suffering. Decay. Entropy. It is a universal constant. Like death and taxes suffering is an inescapable part of our human experience. At some point we all experience it. A child who falls out of a tree and breaks her arm suffers. A parent who loses a child suffers. When marriages end there is suffering. When a teenage romances fall apart there is suffering.
People suffer from the ravages of time. People suffer from improper ratios of chemicals in the brain. People suffer in war. People suffer loudly and people suffer silently. When I received this scripture from Betty I wanted to run in the opposite direction. I wanted to ask her to pick something else, anything else because this scripture seemed too difficult for me to preach on. And I know what you may be thinking. Why? What’s hard about this scripture? Its all about how God will protect us and keep us safe and sound. Well, that’s exactly why it is so hard. Because we see good, God fearing people, suffering every day. Because good people who love God suffer calamity and catastrophe. Because innocent babies get cancer. Because my baby got cancer. Because when we turn on the news it is obvious that suffering and evil run rampant in the world and it seems at times that God has forgotten all about the promises of Psalm 91. I wanted to run so far away from this passage. But then I had a thought, suffering IS universal, since we all experience it every day, even if a lot of it is only through High Definition screens, perhaps I am not the only one who finds this scripture difficult. I do my best not to over burden my sermons with big flashy theological words but on this occasion, for this scripture it is warranted. Plus expensive theological terms are fun to impress your friends with at parties. The theological word we are talking about today is: Theodicy. Go ahead, say it with me: Theodicy. Very good! Essentially theodicy is a theological math problem. We run into when it comes to the existence of suffering and evil in the world. We believe that God is good. We say it every Sunday. God is good (all the time) and all the time (God is good). Another belief that most hold is that God is all powerful. God created the heavens and the earth. God is God because God is the most powerful being in existence. So theodicy begs the theological math question: If God is all powerful, and God is always good, then how come suffering and evil exist? And now that I have planted that in your head I have to apologize because this math problem does not have any good solution that I can give you today. If I could give you one I would. But this is a question that has been debated by theologians smarter than me for centuries. Most have theories, but none that really answer the question of why suffering and evil exist. In the light of this problem Psalm 91 can come across as false. God’s protection against enemies, and physical pain, and even internal pains like terror can’t possibly be true because we all experience those things. If we are to take Psalm 91 at face value then there are only two conclusions. Number one: none of us are successfully living, dwelling, or abiding in God’s shadow, or God’s fortress. We are not staying put under God’s protective wings as we should. In short, perhaps, we don’t believe hard enough. We suffer because we don’t posses enough faith. The second possibility would be that the promise of God’s protection for those who, live, dwell, or abide in him is simply not true. We suffer because, in fact, God is not good God doesn’t, or can’t, or won’t take care of us, no matter what Psalm 91 says. I don’t know about you, but I find both of those answers difficult to swallow. Since we believe that God is good, and therefore not lying in Psalm 91, then perhaps we have to dig a bit deeper into what this Psalm is actually talking about. Before we dig too far it is important to realize that the Psalms are essentially the United Methodist Hymnal of the ancient Hebrews. The Psalms are not a covenantal or theological text. They are more like a book of songs or poetry and therefore not meant to be entirely literal. So, just as we should be careful before building our worldview on the notion that, so long as we keep rowing our boats, “life is but a dream” or before we start to literally believe that “hope is a thing with feathers” or before we find ourselves disappointed because, although we wished on every star we could find, anything your heart desired didn’t come to you, and your dreams didn’t come true. We recognize that poetry sometimes uses images and language to talk around an idea, to make a point, rather than making literal promises or statements about how the world works. A lot of scripture is like that too, especially the psalms. These are poems, songs of faith, intended to convey the same kind of hopefulness that comes with singing, say, “When you wish upon a star” or “Somewhere over the rainbow” a longing and a belief that things can work out, that life can be better than it is, that all isn’t lost, but there is always hope, no matter what our critics may say. But taking those words literally can get you in trouble… if you spend your whole life trying to fly “over the rainbow,” you just might miss out on all the beauty and love and joy in the world where you actually live. It’s the same with the Psalms. In fact, When we read the story of the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the wilderness we see Satan try to trip up Jesus with a verse from this very Psalm. “Throw yourself from the top of the tower Jesus, God has given his angels so that you won’t even stub your toe.” The tempter said, “Take it literally. Jump off the tower.” But Jesus knew better and so do we. Jesus knew that putting God to the test was a fools errand. Not only that but Jesus knew that suffering was part of life. And we certainly can’t accuse Jesus of not having enough faith! No matter how much faith I have in God I am not going to stick an apple on my head and let someone shoot an arrow at me. I am even less likely to try walking over lions or sticking my legs anywhere near snakes. It just isn’t going to happen. So as we start to look at Psalm 91 as poetry then we need to begin to look for what theme or overarching point the poet is trying to make. In this case I see the theme of the poem as being able to find a refuge in God no matter what circumstances we may be encountering. When we abide in God’s shadow our souls will find refuge from the storm. I remember towards the end of Carl’s life I was finding it extremely difficult to pray. I was angry because, on some level, passages like Psalm 91 were how I believed God worked. It wasn’t fair. I’m a pastor, my wife is a pastor, we are most definitely on God’s team. This shouldn’t be happening to us, or anybody. But it was. And it didn’t matter how many thousands of people were praying for a miracle. It didn’t matter how much any of us believed that God could heal Carl. Carl was dying. My son was slipping away and there was nothing I could do about it. All I knew was that my compulsion was to pray, but at that moment I didn’t know how. I had no words other than to beg for my sons life. To make desperate bargains with God that I knew were going to be fruitless. In desperation I reached out to a seminary professor of mine asking if there were any books that could help make sense of this all for me. That could help me learn to pray in the midst of all the suffering. We spent a couple of hours on the phone all the while I cried and cursed my inability to fix the situation. I poured out my heart and my pain to my professor and when it was over he told me “Now, go find a quiet place and tell God what you just told me.” And I did. And I still do. Because in that moment I was reminded of the truth of prayer, of why we pray. It is not to curry God’s favor. It is not so that God can grant my wish like some kind of divine genie. We pray because prayer is a real, tangible, expression of our connection to God. In prayer we connect with the divine. The finite touches the infinite and in that ability to touch and connect with God we are blessed. The connection is the blessing. The connection is the miracle, because in it we realize what the poet who penned Psalm 91 was trying to get across to us: that regardless of how the world may be collapsing around us, God is with us. All we have to do is speak and we are connected to God. And if we cannot speak all we must do is think, focus our thoughts on God and we are connected. When we pray we are embracing the reality that we are not alone in our suffering or in our joy. We are recognizing that when we hurt God hurts with us. When we cry, God cries with us. When we suffer, God suffers too. We are still going to hurt, and suffer, and grieve, but we never have to go through any of it alone. That night, in Carl’s hospital room, as he slept one of his last peaceful nights of sleep I prayed. And I didn’t pray for God to save my son, or to lessen our suffering. I poured out my pain and my fear. I poured out my anger and despair. And I found deliverance. I found relief in finally understanding that I was not alone, that God was with me in my suffering and God could handle any pain or blame I had to throw. One of the terrible things pain does is isolate us. We struggle to see beyond our hurt; we have a hard time imagining things can get better… and when we look around us, it’s very easy to feel like we are very much alone. No one else can feel what we’re feeling. No one else can walk the road for us. No matter how loved we know we are, suffering still makes us feel like we are very much alone. This is where we need to lean on the refuge spoken of in Psalm 91. This is where we find the protection of God. We can rest in our faith, in our prayer and connection to the divine knowing that God has suffered in all ways that we can suffer, and more than that God is with us in our suffering. We are not alone. Even when we suffer, we are not alone; God has not abandoned us, but God is still with us and will keep us in his loving-care, no matter what we may face. And, for whatever reason, when we realize that we are not alone in our suffering, that suffering diminishes, even if only for a short while, we find relief. We find deliverance. We find hope. Suffering and evil are part of life. And I cannot give you a good answer as to why the good and powerful God we serve does not wipe suffering and evil off the face of the planet. I have my theories, we can talk about them some other time, but they bring little comfort. What I can tell you is what the poet of Psalm 91 is telling us: God is with us. When our world is crumbling around us. God is with us. In our most intense moments of joy. God is with us. In our most tremendous suffering. God is with us. We are not alone. God is with us! Amen? Amen.