Insert trouble here

Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell, 2016

Having taught a course on narrative and story, I’ve become quite fond of the work of sculptor Su Blackwell (you can find her website here). She turns old books into sculptures that illustrate the story in three dimensions. The piece shown above, entitled “Once Upon a Time,” is one of her simpler works; some are quite elaborate, with parts of the sculpture lit from within. Her sculptures seem to bring books to life, encouraging us to enter into the stories told.

But of course, that’s what stories are for. The best stories create a world for us to inhabit for a time. They allow us to learn how things might look through someone else’s eyes, widening our vision to appreciate new possibilities.

So too with the stories of Scripture. That’s not to say that all of Scripture is narrative in form. The books that tell us the history of God’s people are not the same kind of writing as the Psalms and Proverbs, nor the prophets. The gospel stories are not the same as the letters of Paul and others, and these in turn are different than the apocalyptic vision in Revelation. Our Bibles are the richer for the variety. But, as some would argue, all these different forms of literature contribute to one narrative of what God has been doing in history; the stories point to The Story.

Our own personal stories matter, too. In recent posts, we’ve explored the idea that our “sacrifice of praise” might entail telling others our grateful stories of God’s goodness, of his faithful love toward us. In this often dreary season of global pandemic, in which we or those close to us have suffered and sometimes died, we need the encouragement of such stories. As I’ve said repeatedly, such stories are never to be told as a way of denying suffering or shutting down someone else’s lament. If we’ve learned anything from the Psalms, it should be that lament has its proper place in the community of faith.

But so does praise: words of gratitude and wonder, uttered even by those who know the depths of suffering and see the brokenness of the world without blinders.

. . .

Psalm 107 opens with just such words of gratitude for the faithful love of God. “O give thanks to the Lord,” the psalmist writes, “for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever” (vs. 1, NRSV). This is not an abstract recommendation. It’s not a general encouragement to feel thankful, but to give thanks:

Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
    those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
    from the east and from the west,
    from the north and from the south
. (vss. 2-3)

“Let the redeemed of the LORD say so”: the New International Version translates this as “Let the redeemed of the LORD tell their story.” And indeed, what follows is not one but four stories of redemption, illustrating how God rescued the needy from a variety of circumstances. The psalmist may here be envisioning the people of God, dispersed to the four corners of the globe, being brought back together to give witness to what God has done on their behalf.

While the four stories of redemption that the psalmist tells reflect four different kinds of trouble, all the stories have the same formulaic structure. First, the trouble is described. Each of the stories begins with the word “some,” as in “Some people struggled with this, while some struggled with that.” The middle of the story has the words, “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress”; the words are nearly identical each time. Finally, each story ends with the formula, “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind,” followed by a summary statement about who God is or how the redeemed should respond.

The structure is clear and obvious, almost like a piece of boilerplate text with blanks to fill in your own personal information: Insert trouble here. Ultimately, it’s not about the stories as much as it is about The Story: the narrative of the God of steadfast love who redeems and rescues, and to whom we must give thanks.

We’ll look at the stories and their implications next time. But for the moment, consider: what trouble would you want to insert into the Story of the God who Redeems?