The Capacity to Cope


The Psalm read this morning has sometimes been referred to as a hymn of praise to the “Great Psychiatrist”.  Now this may a little dramatic, and we may feel uncomfortable attributing too many human characteristics to the Divine, but it is interesting in light of our recurring need for soul therapy.  This is not only a psalm about God’s transcendence  —  that He is “wholly other”, as one theologian has said.  But it is also a hymn proclaiming the closeness of God to us as frail and confused human beings.

“How precious to me are Thy thoughts, O God.  How vast is the sum of them…If I could count them they are more than the sand”, says the Psalmist.  More than the sand?  God’s thought directed toward us?  Could this be called a theology of the seashore?  Many of us will be visiting the beach this summer, maybe even Star Island.  As you sit or roam along the shore, I invite you to reach down, grab a handful of sand and let it trickle through your fingers.  Can you count the grains?  Scientists tell us that this planet earth is but a grain of sand on the infinite “beaches” of the universe.   Many of us have seen the pictures captured by the Hubble Telescope, and the images sent back to earth from other spacecraft we have sent into space.   From the images captured in those photographs, we’re discovering that we don’t  talk about single galaxies anymore, but of clusters and superclusters with their celestial seashores.

When you can’t count the grains anymore, when you are through trying to comprehend the cosmic dust of the universe, remember what the Psalmist says – that in effect, the boggling of your minds is the encounter of God’s grace reminding us that you and I count and that His “precious thoughts”, which we cannot number, are directed our way to enable us to cope.

Very often we discover that the reason we can’t cope with the raw material of our everyday experience today, is due to the subtle subliminal ties we have to the past – your past and mine.  The past has a way of intruding into the present moment.  We are reminded of our inadequacies, our failures and of disastrous events that have occurred.  We feel guilty and threatened.  And the Psalmist is very well aware of this.  Listen:  “Thou dost beset me behind and before…”

PBS has been airing a series which some of you may have watched called “The Father Brown Mysteries”.  I only recently discovered that those mysteries were written by G.K. Chesterton, the British writer, poet, philosopher, lay theologian,,, , who died in 1936 (June 14th).  He was an Anglican for most of his life, but in 1922 he converted to become a Roman Catholic.  He was once asked why he became a Roman Catholic, and he said:  “In order to get rid of my sins”.

We cannot cope until we accept ourselves, and we cannot accept ourselves until we have a sense that we are forgiven —– radically forgiven.  God has covered over the past with His limitless grace.  She has wiped out all our transgressions so that we can begin again with a fresh new start  —  much as we begin a fresh new day when we get up in the morning.  The past is not forgiven because we repent.  We repent because the past is forgiven.

But it is not only because of our ties with our past that makes us unable to cope with our experiences of day to day living;  we also find that we are unable to cope with so much of the pressures today, because of our fear of tomorrow.  Not only has the past been allowed to cut its way into our present moment, but we find that our thoughts run on,  until we find ourselves overwhelmed by the possibilities of the future.

And at such times, we find ourselves becoming irritated with bits of chirpy advice being offered us.  Advice such as:  “Cheer up,   today is the first day of the rest of your life”.  Or, “Cheer up, things could be worse”.  It just doesn’t work, and maybe the reason it doesn’t work is because in our darkest moments, that’s the very thing that intimidates us.  But, in any case, we know ourselves better than anybody else knows us.  They see the persona, which is a combination of what they want to see and what we want to project if we can.  They don’t try to come to terms with the person, and we often find ourselves discouraged in our effort to do it.  “Who am I”?  is usually off-handedly dismissed as a piece of narcissistic preoccupation, because we don’t want to be guilty of misreading, not only a cry for help, but of misinterpreting our own desires as we try to come to terms with the future.  The Psalmist would never have analyzed that way because  his point of reference was religious, not psychological.  But what he had to say combined them both.  “Thou dost beset me behind and before…”  Before it all takes place.  Before the tomorrows crowd into the present.

The whole Psalm is a protest against this habitual interpretation of life —  this boxed-in picture.  God is before you, the psalmist declares.  The very One Who was there when you were intricately and wonderfully made in your mother’s womb.  The One Who is in Heaven and (believe it or not) in Hell shattering its very power that would hold you captive.

That’s what God gives us as we realize that He has “beset us before”.  We are not going to be there on our own.  We are not locked into some inevitability.  New possibilities exist when He is there because He is in the last analysis, the God of the present.  The now.

And so hopefully, we are slowly becoming aware of — slowly coming to understand — what the Psalmist means when he says:  “Thou dost beset me behind and before, and layest Thy hand upon me”.  Present tense.  This special moment.

God wants us to come just as we are because He “lays His hand upon us”. Even when we are put-out and rebellious.  That’s what grace is  —  the power that enables us to cope because we can be confident in Him even when we have little confidence in much else, even ourselves.

But this is not to say that God gives us answers to our deepest questions concerning our existence.  Far from it.  God never does.  The Bible isn’t a book of answers, in the sense of being a compendium of proof texts we can offer  (or as some people sometimes do, hurl) at one another.

It’s been several years since I have read The Sacred Journey which essentially is Frederick Beuchner’s autobiography.  For any of you who have read it, you may remember, as I remember and can never forget how, from the age of eight, he was forced to stare into the nightmare of such an existence.  He and his brother, early one morning, heard the self-inflicted gunshot that took his father’s life.  Things would never be quite the same for him, even though he. Himself, ended up being a novelist, a poet, and a theologian.  In his book, he says the “unanswerable” will always be there.  So how does he face them?  Listen to his words:  “God doesn’t give us answers.    …He gives us Himself”.

That’s what the Psalmist discovered.  That’s what Jesus discovered.  This is what God’s grace means ——  the power that enables us to cope, as quietly and tenderly He takes your hand, and mine, and bids us to take the next step with Him.