Psalm 1471 Praise the Lord!
How good it is to sing praises to our God;
for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
2 The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
3 He heals the broken-hearted,
and binds up their wounds.
4 He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.
5 Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
his understanding is beyond measure.
6 The Lord lifts up the downtrodden;
he casts the wicked to the ground.
7 Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
make melody to our God on the lyre.
8 He covers the heavens with clouds,
prepares rain for the earth,
makes grass grow on the hills.
9 He gives to the animals their food,
and to the young ravens when they cry.
10 His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;*
11 but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.
12 Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem!
Praise your God, O Zion!
13 For he strengthens the bars of your gates;
he blesses your children within you.
14 He grants peace* within your borders;
he fills you with the finest of wheat.
15 He sends out his command to the earth;
his word runs swiftly.
16 He gives snow like wool;
he scatters frost like ashes.
17 He hurls down hail like crumbs—
who can stand before his cold?
18 He sends out his word, and melts them;
he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow.
19 He declares his word to Jacob,
his statutes and ordinances to Israel.
20 He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
they do not know his ordinances.
Praise the Lord!
Back in the days before I had kids, I was a backpacker. I loved to stuff my internal frame Gregory with a couple Nalgene bottles, instant coffee, and packs of freeze dried lasagna and hit the trail. I could walk forever. It’s so quiet. So serene. You could stare down the passing traveller who’d dare hike your trail and not feel guilty about it. Just me and the trail. The sky. The trees. Climbing up a mountain, crossing ice fields in your shorts.
My mom would be nervous about this. She always likes to say that her idea of “roughing it” is to spend the night at a Holiday Inn. But it’s pretty safe as long as you know a few rules.
First of all. You can never pack too many socks. You need at least three pairs - one for wearing, one that’s clean and dry, one pair that’s hanging from your zip cords, drying in the sun.
Second, cotton kills. Never hike in cotton. It’ll get wet. And when cotton gets wet, it stays wet, and it gets cold. Wool is always better - if it gets wet, it still insulates, still keeps you warm.
Third, - there’s a reason why the wilderness is beautiful - it’s because it rains - so, always carry rain gear, even if you’re just going on a day hike.
So of course, on one hike with friends through the Three Sisters Wilderness, out in the beautiful Cascade Mountains of Oregon, I break all of these rules. We were going on a day hike, attempting to scale the middle sister, about a ten mile hike from top to bottom, no problem when you’re not lugging 35 pounds of gear on your back. So I grab a jacket, tie up my boots, stuff a few energy bars in my pockets and snag my water bottle. Ready to hit the trail.
And so we scale the mountain. And it’s beautiful. And we can see for miles. All the way to that cloud in the distance. And then, strangely, that cloud seems a little bigger, a little closer. And then more clouds begin to gather. And they get thicker. And a heavy drizzle starts to fall. No big deal, but my friends and I decide it’s probably best to start our descent.
And so down we go. Except the rocks are getting slippery. And I’m beginning to see my breath as we try to pick up our speed. And a blanket of fog starts to settle in. And we don’t remember this particular glacier field on the way up. And those trees don’t look at all familiar. And wasn’t that valley on the other side of the mountain? And is it just me, or is it suddenly much colder?
So cold my feet are slipping as we cross the ice-covered hill to get to the other side of the valley.
So cold I don’t register where we are or where we should be going.
So cold I’ve stopped shivering.
So cold I start to think that maybe it just might be best to stop right where we are, halfway down this mountain, and sit, and maybe close my eyes for just a little rest. So cold that - what’s the point of all this anyway?
And even now, I wonder, can I just take a break from this wandering that is ministry? This wandering that I am so not equipped for. This wandering that is so overwhelming and often so aimless. Can I just stop moving, for just a moment, and close my eyes, and ignore the aching world around me? Can’t I just stop right where I am, in the middle of serving a meal, in the middle of handing out one more pair of socks, in the middle of this sermon, or hearing yet another complaint from yet another needy human. Can’t I, just for one second, stop feeling helpless, stop crying over the life that seems simply unredeemable, just stop right here, right now, and close my eyes, for just a little rest?
Psalm 147 is a song of praise for God’s care for Jerusalem - But God’s care doesn’t come in the ways we always expect. “God’s delight isn’t in the strength of the horse, or the speed of a runner.” “God’s word runs swiftly,” giving “the snow like wool,” “the frost like ashes,” “hail like crumbs.”
A few weeks ago, during those days of the infamous “polar vortex,” we opened our doors as an emergency overnight shelter for some of our homeless friends who had no where else to go.
My buddy, Andy, was telling me about the frostbite he had on his fingers and toes because he was too stubborn - and too drunk - to get inside the night before. Somebody’d seen him on the side of the road and called the cops, and they’d come and dragged him to the emergency room. Even as he rubbed his sore fingers together, he was still pretty defiant about the whole situation, saying that nobody had any business telling him what to do.
And my friend Carolyn, who is 62 but looks much, much, older, has been homeless since exactly December 21st, wandering the streets, with nowhere to go. The women’s shelters are mainly for the mentally ill or for battered women and women with children, and she’s just a 62 year old woman down on her luck. Before she’d lost her room in a shady halfway house, she was a faith-filled woman who saw the light of Christ wherever she went and said she trusted that God would come through for her. But after six weeks on the streets, she was a completely different person. Shivering. Cynical. Critical. With a frantic, exhausted look in her eyes.
And then there’s mumbling Bill. One Saturday, I found him at his camp, sitting in the dust and the garbage, empty bottles all around him, his hair matted in clumps on his head. He’d been a regular at our community meal on Tuesdays and Thursdays until he got kicked out for foul language and threatening the staff. He’s the guy you’re ashamed to think of when you think of the stereotypes of the homeless. But we still check on him under the 376 underpass every Saturday.
He was drawling on and on about his friend, Randy, whom he hadn’t seen for a few days. Using much more colorful language than I am comfortable using in a “church” setting, he said something to the effect of: “The stupid moron.” “He got in some idiot’s car the other night ‘cause they offered him $100 bucks to use his I.D. And I haven’t seen him since.” Bill went on and on. He kept repeating himself. Still cussing. Still rambling on about what an idiot Randy had been. How he told him this was a bad idea. How he was nervous he might be dead. How he’d known it was a stupid thing to do, but he did it anyway. How he hadn’t seen him since. How it was a bad, bad idea and Randy knew better and it’s not his fault, and there’s nothing we can do, but man what a moron...
In his drunken, coarse way, he was really sharing his deep, deep affection and concern for his friend. And what a gift it was for him to share that with us
Working with the homeless and those on the margins of society is a lot like being lost in the wilderness - never knowing if you’ve made a wrong turn, never knowing when the weather will change, never sure if you’re wasting your time, wandering in circles.
But you go out anyway.
‘Cause you know that your heart is frozen, and the only way to treat hypothermia doesn’t make any sense at all.
We’re all a little bit frost-bitten. We’re all suffering from hypothermia. We are stubborn. We are victims of just plain bad luck. We’re people who make poor choices, and we’re friends with people who make poor choices. So often, we think we don’t need each other. So we ignore the person with the cardboard sign on the street. We justify our stinginess, saying that the person who needs it will probably just waste it. We think we’ve got our own lives under control. We think that this college degree, or this savings account, or these clean clothes, or this “right” choice is what separates us from those who are struggling, those who are suffering. And then we ignore the hurt within our own hearts.
But we’re all a little bit hypothermic.
We’re all suffering from hard, cold hearts.
To treat hypothermia, you need to take off all those layers of wet clothes and stereotypes and expectations.
To warm up, you need the presence of other humans, their body heat to gently raise your own internal temperature.
And if you’re stuck in the wilderness, with snow all around, the best thing to do is to dig a hole in the ice and snow and burrow in deep. The snow will actually act as insulation.
And if you are hypothermic, you know you’re in big trouble if you start to get complacent, comfortable, ready to crumple yourself into a ball and just go to sleep.
Psalm 147 tells us that the real way to warmth is through the cold.
The snow is like wool.
The frost is like ashes.
The hail is like crumbs.
What a strange juxtaposition of images. Unless you are suffering from hypothermia. Then you know that crawling into the snow is exactly what you need to do to get warm. If you are really cold, you know that where there are ashes, there is warmth. And if you are freezing, where there are crumbs, there is bread.
God’s cold is warm like wool. God’s cold is evidence that fire and fresh bread are not that far off. If you want to survive hypothermia, you crawl into that cold, you strip off your expectations and your maps and clear directions and you huddle with other people, soaking in their body heat and their wet breath. You go where the water is still moving, because moving water doesn’t freeze.
None of us can stand before God’s cold. But it is God’s word, that melts us. And like the ruach that hovers over the waters at the beginning of creation, God’s spirit, God’s warming breath, makes the waters flow.
God’s word -
God’s word that melts you as you hold the frostbitten hands of a proud, stubborn homeless man.
God’s word that softens you as you look in the frantic eyes of an exhausted woman at her wits’ end.
God’s word that warms you as you listen to the worried ramblings of a drunk, concerned for his best friend.
God’s word that comes to us through the weakness of a man, born in questionable circumstances, killed in the most shameful of ways.
God calls us to go out in the storm, into the snow, and get melted.
Thanks Be to God.