Sunday Morning Worship – 26 October 2008

In God’s Time

Psalm 90

We’re coming close to the end of the Christian year now, when the current year goes out in a brilliant blaze with Reign of Christ (or Christ the King) Sunday and the new year begins in darkness with a lone Advent candle to light our way.

It seems as good a time as any for Psalm 90…God, you have been our dwelling place for generations…A thousand years in your sight are like yesterday… a dream… While we struggle all our days and then our years come to an end with a sigh…Help us to count these painful blessed days, to develop wise hearts…Give us what we need in the morning, give us as many glad days as hard days, Give us vision to see your work and bless our work that we may strive for the same thing.

A sweep of a poem and a prayer, asking God for help in the struggle that occupies our days and asking for some sense to it all before we are extinguished like a sigh. It’s a great psalm for this time of year.

But what an odd thing our lectionary does, offering only verses 1-6 and skipping to the end for verses 13-17. We read the whole psalm this morning but the lectionary reading left out the middle verses, 7-12. Lectionary readings often carve away sections of text or verses of a psalm and I am not always sure what the reasoning is behind the selective readings, but sometimes the hardest, grittiest, most heartfelt and sincere parts get clipped out. Psalms are notorious and glorious in their insistence on bringing all of life before God. Nothing hidden, nothing held back. The soul laid bare before God, warts and all.

So how odd that our lectionary cuts out all the “good parts” from Psalm 90. I tend to think that any time we pull out a favorite line of scripture with complete disregard for its context, we are missing the point, or at least part of the point. Reading only the first few verses and then the last few makes Psalm 90 may make it more “palatable.” Read that way the psalm basically proclaims that God is eternal, powerful, has been with us a long time, and then makes a plea for God to make our work prosper. Palatable but problematic.

Where is the longing for sense in the midst of senselessness? Where is the railing against death? Where is the grappling with the pain of life and the meanness of some of our days? Where is the recognition of how short and tiny our lives are and how desperately we want them to mean something beyond our short life spans? Where is the contrite heart asking God to teach it wisdom?

Maybe not so palatable after all.

Psalm 90 is often used in funerals and memorials and it is fitting that we come across it in our readings this Sunday before All Saints Day and this week in our congregational life as we mourn and give thanks for the life of John Hilker. Praying Psalm 90 at a death makes more sense than the chopped up lectionary reading. What an appropriate time to pause and ask how it is that things happen as they do. What a fitting place to wonder about the fleetingness of our lives and to give thanks that this life is not the whole story.

But I think we also miss part of the point if we hold Psalm 90 in reserve and bring it out only for funerals.

Two of the most interesting and strangely humorous verses are some that were left out of the lectionary today. Verses 9 and 10 read: “For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” A rough paraphrase might be: This is hard and full of grief – and we only get to live it for 80 years. Please give us more!

Why would we want to flatten this plea? Why would we want a thinner prayer? There is a fullness to this psalm as it struggles with and resists life’s trials, as it questions God for answers to what seems senseless, and as it shifts perspective towards the end.

Psalm 90 is the only psalm in the Psalter attributed to Moses. While it’s unlikely that Moses wrote it, there are good reasons to hear it as “an imagined prayer of Moses” (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. IV, p. 1041). Right before it, Psalm 89 closes with aching questions: “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?…Who can live and never see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol?” (Psalm 89: 47, 48, 49). Psalm 90 is the first psalm of Book IV of the Psalter, following Book III’s long lament over the destruction of Jerusalem, including Psalm 89’s “announcement of God’s rejection of the covenant with David” (NIB Commentary, p.1040). Psalm 90 comes right after this, claiming Mosaic authorship.

What would it mean in that context – or in ours – to harken back to Moses’ time? Moses’ story all takes place when God’s people had no land or Temple, a time not so dissimilar from the exile at the end of Psalm 89. Moses and the Israelites had to rely on God for everything while wandering 40 years in the desert, eating manna and drinking water gushing improbably from dry rocks.

One of the most striking parts of Moses’ story is that he never reaches the promised land. After all those years, all that struggle with the wayward people, all that faithfulness, and all those trips up the mountain to have a conversation with God, Moses dies in the wilderness. God takes him up Mount Pisgah for a good look around, letting Moses drink in the view across the Jordan, but that’s all he gets.

We are told that it’s because God was “angry” with Moses. The word “angry” in that part of the story is from the same Hebrew root as “wrath” in verses 9 and 11 of today’s psalm: “For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh…Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.”

We might begin to see how Moses stands in for Israel’s experience and, more broadly, for human experience. One commentary puts it this way, “We always come up short, in terms of time, intentions, and accomplishments. What initially seems like a depressing message, however, is actually an encouraging one. If the great Moses came up short, then perhaps it is not such a disaster that we do too. Moses’ death was a reminder that God, not Moses, would lead the people into the land. Our time, therefore, is not all there is to measure. God’s time is primary…our time must be measured finally in terms of God’s time” (NIB Commentary, p. 1041).

Time is an odd constant, isn’t it? It’s family weekend here at UVA, a good reminder of how quickly times passes. For those of you visiting your student, you may have experienced some pinching-yourself moments since your son or daughter went off to school. That little baby who used to fit into the crook of your arm is in college but it seems like those crook-of-the-arm days were just last year. Students, you may feel time speeding up with each year you’re here, until suddenly you’re a fourth year looking for a job. Transitions remind us of how transitory our lives really are… going to or graduating from college, the death of someone beloved, the birth of a child, the beginning or ending of an important relationship…transitions remind us that, like Moses, we are not really in charge of this story and that God does not measure time like we do.

Some times, some days, some transitions are easier to live through. Even joyful. But even then we sometimes struggle: Why can’t this day last? Why does this time feel so short while the hard times feel so long?

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days…(v.14).

Remember how Moses and the Israelites ate in the wilderness? God sent just enough manna for that day, each and every day. Except for the day before the Sabbath, they were to gather only what they needed that day, not to stock up for later. God would give them what was needed for another day another day.

That’s the discipline of a lifetime. Being present to the day at hand and thankful for what is given. Living day by day, expecting God each day and giving thanks for the gifts of that day. Cultivating this sort of daily thankfulness and trust is the practice of our lives. As the psalmist says, “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (v. 12).

However many days I have, whatever they may contain, and wherever you take me, God, thank you for the days and for the gift of your presence. Thank you for all that you have done before me and for what will come when my story is over. Thank you for what you do with me and without me.

Psalm 90 is a potent combination of fear, desire, need, grief, love, faith, and hope. We don’t get anywhere by cutting out the fear and grief. We don’t get more love or faith or hope, a fuller life, or closer to God. We get somewhere in our spiritual practice, in our love of God, in making sense of life, and in trusting God’s promises when we practice being thankful. When we commit ourselves to the practice it becomes our primary orientation in life – being thankful for the gift of life and the many gifts it contains.

The poet Jane Kenyon died young and struggled for a long while with leukemia before her body finally gave up. She and her husband the poet Donald Hall both wrote prolifically about the journey. One of my favorite of her poems is called “Otherwise” (Otherwise, Jane Kenyon, p. 214).

It sounds like someone who has read Psalm 90. It sounds like someone who knows that dying is not as bad a death as being estranged from God and missing the point. It sounds like someone who lives day by day…..


I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

As Psalm 90 follows 89, Kenyon’s poem “Notes from the Other Side” (p. 215) follows “Otherwise” and it is the final poem of the collection. She imagines what it is to be freed from our limited grasp on time. She imagines where her life ends and where God’s promise will take her:

“Notes from the Other Side”

I divested myself of despair

and fear when I came here.

Now there is no more catching

one’s own eye in the mirror,

there are no bad books, no plastic,

no insurance premiums, and of course

no illness. Contrition

does not exist, nor gnashing

of teeth. No one howls as the first

clod of earth hits the casket.

The poor we no longer have with us.

Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves

to be mercy clothed in light.

Thanks be to God!

© 2008 Deborah E. Lewis