Meeting Times at 4th United Presbyterian Church

Cafe' Worship: 9:15 a.m. each Sunday in Gathering Hall (activities provided for children; coffee; snacks)
Adult Sunday School: 10 a.m.

Sunday Worship: 11 a.m.

Bible Study: each Thursday at 6 p.m.

Community Forum: last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. with meal (no community forum in November, 2011)

About the 4th United Presbyterian Bible Blog

Posts on this blog are from me, Rev. George H. Waters, one of the two organizing co-pastors of 4th United Presbyterian Church. Our other organizing pastor was Rev. Sonya McAuley-Allen, who is now pastor of a church in Charlotte, N.C. Since June of 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Peterson has been our parish associate pastor for new church development. The earliest posts are sermon notes from the few I have typed the last two years. Then, there is a series of notes posted on the book of Romans. After that, it varies from week to week, sometimes church news, sometimes reflections on a happening, a passage of scripture, or even some pictures. This blog is meant to open the conversation we have going on in our church to others in our community.

The picture below is of our church's sanctuary, built in 1913.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Struggling with Envy: A Meditation on Psalm 73

Psalm 73: “Wrestling with Envy”

The Psalm writer remembers a time when he was worn out with the unfairness of life. He remembers a time when his mind was riddled with doubt. He says: “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart, but as for me, my feet had nearly slipped, I had almost tripped and fallen . . .”

But, what had happened to cause this holy man to fall into a place of doubt and trouble? What happens in our lives to make us fall into a place of spiritual struggle?

For this man who surely spoke for many men and women of Israel, it was a painful struggle with envy and a painful struggle with the unfairness of life.

Have you ever looked around and noticed that there are a good number of people that seem to get many of the good things of life even though they continue to do a lot of bad things towards other people? There was a book written about 20 years ago entitled: “Why bad things happen to good people.” This Psalm is concerned about that, but the title of these complaints would be: “Why Do Such Good Things Happen to Such Bad People?” That’s what really filled the Psalmist soul in his time of trouble. “Why Do The Best Things Seem to Happen to Some of the Worst People?”
And, then he takes us back into that time of trouble. His mind goes back to that time of bitterness and he begins speaking like he did back in that past time of trouble. Here is what he was talking like back then:

“These proud and wicked people suffer no pain, and their bodies are sleek and sound; they don’t have to share in the misfortunes that the rest of us bear in life. They wear their pride and arrogance like a necklace for all to see. They wrap their violence around them like a cloak. Their sins arise from corrupt minds, and their hearts overflow with wicked thoughts. They make fun of others and enjoy hurting others with the way they talk. They are conceited and they make plans to exclude and deprive others of their rights.”

This holy man gets all worked up again recalling this state of mind and soul when he was so overwhelmed with complaining and so sick of the evil people getting the good things in life while the righteous were struggling to just get by.

Truth was, he was complaining to God, and angry in his soul. The Psalms contain many complaints showing that true prayer often contains complaints as part of the song of faith. Of course, as the Psalm writer shows us, if the complaining spirit continues to turn to the Holy God, something more happens in the heart and in the soul. Something more than just complaining.

And, though we are going to be involved in complaining in our hearts and minds and conversations and even prayers at times, we get tired when we get to the point of having a COMPLAINING SPIRIT. Because once that complaining spirit takes over within us, it alienates others from us. Now, we know everybody has got to complain some in life. And, if someone never complains, we may think they are putting on an act in life. But, we do get tired of being around someone who complains all the time about things being unfair to that person. And, we start complaining about our friend complaining so much, who may in turn be complaining about someone else who complains so much. But, surely we all do have some serious complaints in our hearts and minds, whether we speak them or not.

Because we can’t help but wonder at times in life why one person is given so many advantages and another person is not; why it is such a struggle for one child to get a decent education while an education just seems to come as a matter of course for other children. We may wonder why some seem to find a good man or good woman so easily while that is something we can’t ever seem to find. We may wonder why some of our good desires in life don’t ever seem to get fulfilled. We may wonder why someone we love and care about so much just has such a struggle to get by in life while others just breeze by as if living was the easiest thing in the world to do.
And, when those complaints reach a point of deep bitterness, it gets hard for us to do anything positive in life. When we fall to the point of having a COMPLAINING SPIRIT, it gets for us like it was for the Psalmist. He says: “I had reached a breaking point. I turned to God and said: ‘In vain have I kept my heart clean, and washed my hands in innocence. I have been troubled all day long and beat down each morning as if I had done evil.”

I remember conversations through the years with friends who had children with debilitating sicknesses, illnesses that you don't get over, but that day by day weaken the body and mind of the child. One man had a little daughter with cancer; another man had a little son with another degenerative disease that weakens the body day by day. And, I have seen pictures and heard stories of women who have walked 20 miles through desert lands carrying a sick child to a medical clinic only to have the child die on the way. The parents I knew spoke of their struggle to face the tragic reality of their child's illness, and then go on working, living, and staying strong for their child and families. These parents I didn't know bear the pain of loss in their souls as they finally arrive at a medical clinic but it is too late.

I think of all these parents as I think on this Psalm. Who knows, our Psalm writer might have had a child like that. And, I think of all of us who deal with our own disappointment and worries and struggles in life and are tempted to just give up and give up caring as much because life seems unfair. And, then I remember what happened to the Psalmist one day. He says: “Had I gone on in this complaining spirit, I should have betrayed the generation of your children.” He knew he had to pass on more than a complaining/bitter spirit to his children. He says: “When I tried to understand it all – why things like this continue to happen – it was too much for me to understand UNTIL . . .


He says: “When my mind became embittered, I was sorely wounded in my heart . . . (I was hurt by the disappointment and worry and sorrow of life) . . . it was as if my mind and heart were numb . . ..”

But, when he went into the sanctuary, something happened to his mind and heart. He experienced the reality of God, the presence of God. It is a mystery what happened when he went into worship.

But, he came out saying TO GOD: “Yet, however low I had sunk in my heart, I am always with you; you hold my right hand. You will guide me by your counsel, and afterwards receive me with glory. My heart and my flesh may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

What happened? How was this holy man who had about lost his way transformed from having a complaining, bitter spirit to having a greatful, trusting spirit?
When he was alone, he surely had the chance to pray and read the scripture. Why was it so important to him to go to the sanctuary of God? Certainly, he could have had a transforming experience of God when he was alone or with one or two others. But, for this man, his transformation came in worshipping God with others in the sanctuary.

And, I can only begin to guess what happened. I am thinking today that it has something to do with looking around and seeing and feeling other human beings coming before God and really praising God. Maybe the real antidote to a bitter and envious spirit is to experience the truth that there are a good number of human beings who do want something better for this world, who are sorry for hurting others when they do, and who really yearn for God’s justice on earth. To hear other human voices raised in praise OR to see other human heads bowed in confession is sometimes to experience the presence of God in human flesh. It is a mystery of grace in human community.

Or, it may have been something he observed as he walked into the sanctuary one day. He may have walked in and seen the devotion and commitment of those who kept things going in the temple. . . like I did last week. I came into the sanctuary on Friday evening – day 5 of Vacation Bible School – and I was tired from the work day in court. And, I was frustrated by it, and angry about some of it, in a complaining spirit. And, I look over and noticed two women from our church, both of them in their 80’s who were cheerfully working their fifth evening in a row of Vacation Bible School, caring enough about passing on something to the children to do what it takes. And, that hopeful determination and belief in the next generation lifted my spirit, encouraged me.

It is my guess that something like that happened to the Psalmist that day he went to worship. Maybe some other human being looked him in the eyes and showed him love. He may have experienced reconciliation with someone he was estranged from. He heard some other people singing God’s praises with a pure heart; repenting of sin with a broken spirit; and felt embraced by something greater than them. Yes, we can experience the presence of God powerfully when we are alone, but for those of us who have well nigh slipped and fallen as we so often do, there is something powerful and mysterious about coming together to worship with other human beings – human beings who are struggling just as we are but who continue to find a way to praise the living God. And, then we can say together: “MY HEART AND MY FLESH MAY FAIL, BUT GOD IS THE STRENGTH OF MY HEART AND MY PORTION FOREVER.“ It is my hope that whatever struggles you have, that you are able to find these words in the depths of your heart – MY HEART AND MY FLESH MAY FAIL, BUT GOD IS THE STRENGTH OF MY HEART AND MY PORTION FOREVER. IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND THE SON AND THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.

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