When stuff happens

Years ago, I was asked to do some teaching and preaching in Sweden. It was a long, long flight, and for whatever reason, I just can’t sleep on airplanes. I boarded the plane in Los Angeles, had a stopover at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, and finally landed in Gothenburg. I was terribly sleep-deprived, but happy to have made the trip.

Then I was unhappy to find that my suitcase hadn’t made the trip with me.

Shoot. I forgot to pray for “traveling mercies.”

Thankfully, I was reunited with my luggage a few days later. But meanwhile, I was forced to lecture in Levis instead of professorial tweed. I’m guessing someone must have thought, Oh, those Americans.

It was a low-key reminder to stick to the mission and not take myself too seriously. As the poet Robert Burns once wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men gang aft agley.”

In case you’re wondering, that’s Scottish for, “stuff happens.”

And as another poet suggested, long before Burns, when stuff happens, we can go to God for help, in humility.

Psalm 25, as we’ve seen, has a poetic structure that highlights these verses:

Good and upright is the Lord;
    therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
    and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
    for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
(vss. 8-10, NRSV)

The Hebrew word describing”the humble” is anawim — those who are oppressed, afflicted, or humiliated (in Genesis 34:2 and Deuteronomy 22:24,29, for example, the verb form is used of sexual violation). And although it might sound strange, the idea of being beaten down by life is intrinsic to the gospel and Jesus’ message of the kingdom.

. . .

The Beatitudes of Jesus, those strange words of blessing at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, are steeped in the worldview of the Psalms. When Jesus says that the “poor in spirit” are blessed, as well as “those who mourn,” “the meek,” and even those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (here, “justice” would probably be a better translation than “righteousness”), he is echoing the idea that God cares for the anawim, for the downtrodden.

For those who occupy positions of power and status in life, that doesn’t sound like particularly good news. That’s made clear in Luke’s gospel, where Jesus pronounces blessings on people who are poor, hungry, weeping, and marginalized, but pronounces woe on people who are rich, well-fed, laughing, and popular (Luke 6:20-26). The kingdom Jesus preached, in other words, was the reverse of the world’s definition of winners and losers.

The “winners” didn’t like it. But to the “losers,” this was good news indeed.

. . .

Psalm 25, as we’ve seen, begins and ends with a cry for help. But inside that cry is a prayer for wisdom. It’s as if, having asked for God’s help in a difficult situation, the psalmist is reminded that the life of faith is less about circumstances and more about character. It’s less about what happens to you and more about how you respond.

And if one prays honestly for wisdom, then soon, inside that prayer, will come a prayer for forgiveness and mercy. When we pray to be taught God’s ways, we realize to our chagrin that we’re not following them.

And inside that prayer is a word of faith and trust: God is good; he teaches sinners like me his way.

We don’t have to be weighed down by outright oppression to know the blessing which both the psalmist Jesus knew. If we understand the weight of our sin, if we are oppressed by the knowledge of it, then can we appreciate the burden that’s been lifted by the cross.

We can and should pray for help when stuff happens. When we find ourselves in a strange airport on the other side of the world, there’s nothing wrong with asking God’s help in recovering our lost luggage so we can have a change of clothing and a clear pair of socks. When we find ourselves in the strange new world of a life-threatening illness, there’s nothing wrong in asking God to save us.

But hopefully, whatever happens on the next leg of that journey, we will dig down prayerfully and rest in the confidence that God is the God of the downtrodden. In steadfast love and faithfulness, he will teach them his way.