Psalms 42 & 43
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Blaise Pascal in the 17th c. wrote, “There was once in [us] a true happiness of which there now remains…only the mark and empty trace, which [we] in vain [try] to fill from all [our] surroundings…but these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself" [Pascal, Pensees, VII, 425, in The Great Books, vol. 33, p. 244].
How often have we, each of us, gone through a period in life feeling that something essential is missing and that there has to be something more to life. How often have we searched for that something more, only to try and fill up that God-shaped hole with something that is inadequate and not life-giving? The Psalmist was able to see what was really at stake here, saying that our hearts yearn for relationship with God in the same way that a thirsty deer longs for the cool, clear water of a rushing stream.
In one of his most recent books, UCC minister and biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann describes the countercultural nature of the Psalms. In fact, he goes beyond culture to describe what he calls the “Counter-World of the Psalms.” Brueggemann writes, “The psalms voice and mediate to us a counter-world that is at least in tension with our other, closely held world and in fact is often at direct odds with that closely held world. As a result, we yearn for a counter-world that is characterized by trust and assurance, because we know very often that our closely held world is not the best of all possible worlds. We are eager for a new, improved world that is occupied by the Good Shepherd, that yields help from the hills, and that attests a reliable refuge and strength. That is why we continually line out these particular cadences again and again. That is why we want to hear them at the hospital and at the graveside and in the many venues where our closely held world is known to be thin and inadequate. We want something more and something other than our closely held world can possibly yield" [Walter Brueggemann, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid, (Louisville: WJK, 2014) p. 9].
As we envision this counter-world, we hear the echoes of one who knew the psalms well, and we hear of his proclamation of a new realm, a new way of being, a new paradigm for how human life is organized and lived. We hear the strains of Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God, which is what the world would be like if we lived in accordance with God’s intention.
Brueggemann sets up seven characteristics of “Our Closely Held World,” and I would ask you to remember that it is our closely held world. And I would ask you to consider these seven characteristics when you recall the political rhetoric you read in the news every day:
1) Anxiety rooted in scarcity: “We worry that if the goodies and power are shared more widely, there will not be as much for us" [Brueggemann, p. 10]. Anxiety leads people to want to build walls instead of bridges.
2) Greed: which “requires fatiguing overwork, endless 24/7 connection, and insatiable multitasking, all in an effort to get ahead or in an effort to stay even and not to fall hopelessly behind" [Brueggemann, p. 11].
3) Self-sufficiency: When Ezekiel quotes Pharaoh’s claim that “My Nile is my own: I made it for myself,” (Ezek. 29.3) or when we describe ourselves as “self-made men and women” we engage in the hubris of self-sufficiency.
4) Denial: We believe the promises of Madison Avenue, even though “our closely held world cannot keep its promises of safety, prosperity, and happiness" [Brueggemann, p. 12]. We are willing to say that the emperor has wonderful new clothes, even though we know better.
5) Despair: “Because we cannot fully master and sustain such denial and from time to time gasp before the truth that our world is not working, we end in despair.” Have you given in to despair in recent years?
6) Amnesia: We think, “It is all too much. And so, as a result, we are all too happy to press the delete button labeled amnesia” [Brueggemann, p. 13]. Whether we need to forget the images of Auschwitz or Hiroshima or Columbine or children in detention centers on our border…we hit the delete key.
7) A Normless World: “The outcome of our narcissistic amnesia is a normless world, because without God and without tradition and without common good, everything is possible” [Brueggemann, p. 14]. The dystopian world projected in George Orwell’s 1984 and in so many recent films is possible.
I know that Brueggemann paints a horrific picture: Our “closely held world” is a frightening reality that we see on the news every day. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. A world beyond the death-dealing dystopian future is possible, and it is echoed by the psalmist. We long for a different realm, one that affirms the goodness of life and of God’s creation. We long for the promised kingdom of God, what Brueggemann calls the Counter World of the Psalms:
1) Instead of anxiety, we can rely on God’s Trustful Fidelity: The psalmist cries out: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” God’s fidelity, God’s covenant faithfulness, can “grant us courage for the facing of this hour.”
2) Instead of a greed, the psalmist proclaims a World of Abundance. “The ground for such an abundance that refuses greed is the glad doxological affirmation that God is the creator who has blessed and funded the earth so that it is a gift that keeps on giving. The doxological assumption is that when God’s creatures practice justice, God’s earth responds with new gifts" [Brueggemann, p. 17].
3) Instead of the delusion of being self-sufficient, we can acknowledge our Ultimate Dependence on God. We can see the miraculous nature of creation and life and know that we did nothing to create it, but that we are stewards responsible for preserving it.
4) Instead of denial, the psalmist embraces Abrasive Truth Telling. Whether “speaking the truth in love” or announcing an inconvenient truth, the psalmist calls out injustice and falsehood. “The entire genre of lament, complaint, and protest constitutes a refusal of denial” [Brueggemann, p. 20]. And truth-telling requires courage.
5) Despair – the hallmark of our times – can be overcome by A World of Hope. This is the world the poet portrays by repeating this refrain in Psalm 42 and Psalm 43: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” (42.11 and 43.5) “Hope in God! Hope in God! Which is to say: ‘Do not hope in self. Do not hope in progress Do not hope for luck.’” [Brueggemann, p. 23]. Hope is the great refusal to accept the shadowy culture of despair.
6) Lively Remembering sets aside cultural amnesia about the goodness and presence of God. The refrain of Psalm 136 echoes back the history of all that God has done: “for his steadfast love endures forever.” If we don’t take time for awe, that is to reflect and remember what God has done in the glory of creation, we lapse into amnesia.
7) The psalmist’s antidote to a Normless World is Normed Fidelity – our faithfulness to God through Torah, not meaning simply “the Law,” but as Brueggemann claims, the entire legacy of norming that is elastic, dynamic, fluid, and summoning….It is the Torah that yields identity and perfect freedom. It is indeed a gift to come down where we ought to be" [Brueggemann, p. 25-26].
Some would have us feel as though we are powerless to change the world, to change the course of our nation’s history, and to change ourselves. This is not so. We don’t have to slip into war with Iran, to launch global trade wars, to round up productive members of society as if they were animals, to accept gun violence as normative. And it isn’t because we are brighter or wealthier or have more followers on Facebook. We aren’t that self-sufficient!
Another world is possible. The Counter-World of the Psalmist, the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus, the world of hope. Remember the words of Paul, dear friends of God, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” We can learn to fill the God-shaped hole not just in ourselves, but in the culture and fabric of this nation. Amen.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.