I’m sure our California friends could tell much better stories, but for this midwesterner, it was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever felt. A couple of weeks ago northeast Ohio experienced a 4.0 earthquake. My family and I were driving very near the reported epicenter at the time, but, given the mild nature of the quake and the suspension of our car, we didn’t feel it but only heard about it later on social media. The 5.0 quake I’m talking about happened a decade or so ago. Things shifted back and forth on my desk and wall for about two seconds, and it was over before I realized what had happened. I was sitting in a sturdy chair when that tremor hit, but had I been standing or walking, the effects to my equilibrium would’ve no doubt been greater, and I might’ve even taken a tumble.
Yesterday my Bible reading plan took me to Psalm 119:121-144. The last verse in those two stanzas says, “Your testimonies are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live.” When I say to my kids, “Do you ‘understand’?” I’m not asking if they have a firm footing on the floor of our house; I want to know if they mentally grasp the meaning and importance of what I’ve just told them. ‘Understanding’ in our vernacular has to do with the mind and comprehension. But when I read v. 144 yesterday, for some reason that word struck me in a much more literal way: I imagined myself standing not on solid ground but on a tree limb too small for my weight, a swinging bridge over a gorge on a windy day, or trying to walk during an earthquake.
The psalmist cries out in desperation for an under-standing built on the firm testimonies of the Lord. Why? He says, “that I may live [and presumably not die!]” But why is this his concern? Because, as he says in v. 143, “Trouble and anguish have found me out.”
But that’s not just the case for an ancient Israelite king; that’s New Testament ministry, isn’t it? Smooth sailing on calm seas of congregational cooperation, quiet walks in the gentle breeze of refreshing Christian fellowship: everyone content, everybody getting along with one another, serving willingly, seeing and meeting needs selflessly, no gossip, no grudges, no grabbing for power or position, no sickness, no deaths or funerals, no marital crises, no moral failures… Yeah, unfortunately that’s the exception and not the rule in local church life and ministry, am I right? The rule tends much more towards trouble and anguish—ongoing trouble in at least a low-grade form but often punctuated with spikes of leader and/or congregational anguish.
Church troubles and anguish can have a destabilizing effect on the souls of leaders and members alike. (This newsflash brought to you by yours truly, Dr. O.B. Vious!) And that’s not even to mention the non-church troubles and anguish we face in our extended families, our neighbors’ lives, in our communities, our nation and the world. All told, life in a fallen world is an exercise in trying to navigate the shaky and often shifting ground beneath our feet, metaphorically speaking. The social norms and cultural morals of one day will likely be different the next. Through death, disharmony, departures, etc., the church we love and fall asleep praying for tonight may not be the same church we wake up serving tomorrow morning. And then—not metaphorically speaking—there are actual earthquakes, big ones, bad ones that wreck houses and crush children under piles of debris. Yep, solid ground of any sort is a figment in a post-Genesis 3 reality—that is, unless God himself should provide some.
Good news: He has; He does!
Our good God has given us testimonies, spoken and written assurances of His presence, His goodness, His patience, His expectations, and His plan going forward—a whole Bible rich with a firmness the world promises but can’t provide is ours. Here is stability for the wavering soul. Here is an anchor point for tossed and drifting vessels. Here is a handle hold for the sinking one. Let’s bear in mind, v. 144 doesn’t do away with v. 143. However, v. 144’s testimonies do mean v. 143’s troubles and anguish don’t have to be all-defining for us. You may not believe this (I don’t know if the creators of the M’Cheyne One-Year reading plan on the Bible app intended it or not) but another reading yesterday was Matthew 7, where Jesus famously closes the Sermon on the Mount with that powerful illustration of the wise and foolish builders:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
If, by faith and discipline, God’s testimonies are that upon which we choose to stand, we will live! And of course we know “live” means more than mere physical life or survival. Though “liv[ing]” in this sense does not preclude troubles and/or anguish, it does mean we can have a vital, meaningful, divinely used & useful earthly existence as well as a glorious, eternal heavenly existence. The builders in Jesus’ story don’t differ in circumstance but in stance. One builds/stands on rock, the other on sand. In a calm quiet world the two builders’ houses could stand side-by-side. The builder with the rock foundation could go sit comfortably and confidently visit in the home of the one with the sand foundation and vice-versa. But let the winds kick up, let the rains pound down and the waters rise, and it’s a whole different story.
This isn’t a safe, sound, or secure world. It’s not solid; it’s not sturdy; it’s not stable. The Church is in this world and circum-stanced by thrashing troubles and anguish of every conceivable kind. What will be our stance? As leaders of local churches we have to set an example of appropriate foundation building. Will the winds and rains that pound the outside of the church and sometimes penetrate our fellowships through open windows and doors be to our ruin as the house of God? Not if we anchor our hope, our life, in His sure testimonies. Not if hearing and DOING Jesus’ words is our obsession!
O Lord, give me and all the pastors and planters of Cleveland Hope a firm under-standing of Your testimonies that we may be Your witnesses and do Your work in this windy and wobbly world!