Two Sundays ago we had fifty-five students come over to our college’s Presbyterian House for our first program of the year. It was great. We made ice cream sundaes, sat around in the grass, and listened to live music. After a little while, I led a brief devotion. To match the casual tone of the evening, I wanted our devotion to be somewhat interactive and extemporaneous. I had a scripture story in mind, but I didn’t plan out exactly what I was going to say. It went pretty well, I noticed the students were with me, paying attention, until the end, when I just sort of lost my train of thought and rambled on for a little while…about, basically, nothing. It wasn’t my best. This was confirmed for me when I got home and asked my honest husband how I did. “It was good,” he said, “but you were kind of repetitive and rambly.” Sigh. (He might have said this more gently, but all I heard was repetitive and rambly.)
This really got me down. I was disappointed in myself, disappointed in what I saw was a missed opportunity to speak meaningful words into the lives of so many college students. Repetitive and rambly….great….college students love repetitive and rambly. Way to go, Teri. For the rest of the night on Sunday and all the next Monday, I couldn’t get rid of this feeling of disappointment. I obsessively replayed the devotion in my head thinking of all the brilliant things I could have and should have said. I kept wallowing in this failure to do my very best. I got stuck in a bad place, a real funk.
I was still stuck in this bad place when I began to prepare for a sermon I was to preach on Psalm 139. But as I began to read the psalmists words I was comforted to recognize myself; I recognized the highs and the lows of human life, the mood swings, and the dark places. The psalmist asks, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” He asks because he’s been swinging to the highest of the heavens and then falling to the depths of Sheol…he’s taken flight to bright sunny places of light….and then fallen into the darkness which covers him like the night. See? I’m not the only crazy one. The psalmist’s a manic depressive too!
Seriously, though, this is really us, isn’t it? The psalmists always do a great job of shedding light on the human condition. What really bothered me, though, was how stuck I could get in that bad, funky place (I’ll refer to it as my place of Sheol) and how hard it is for me to get out. Sheol for the ancient Jews was the place of the dead. It was where everyone went when they died, a good metaphor, then, for my dark mood because I don’t know life when I am in that place.
When I was a teenager my parents took my brother and me on a big family vacation to Hawaii. It was wonderful, except for one particular trip to the beach when we decided to go boogie-boarding on some of the island’s big waves. The waves were huge and powerful. I had no idea how powerful, actually, until I was in the midst of them. Then, somehow (I don’t remember how it happened) I was under them…underwater….under the waves….underneath this huge powerful force pushing me down deeper and deeper until I felt the sand at the bottom of the ocean. I remember the sand. I remember trying to push off the sand. I remember trying to lift myself up off the ocean floor, trying to swim up so I could breathe, but the waves were simply too powerful. I thought I was dying. But, eventually, the waves receded, the weight let up, and I was able to get my head up out of the water. Oxygen filled my empty lungs. It was like I was released, or set free.
Being crushed underneath the weight of those waves, being stuck there on the bottom of the ocean in that place of darkness, and death, the lack of oxygen, all of it was Sheol. This is what Sheol still feels like for me. It pushes me down and keeps me down and cuts me off from life.
The good news of Psalm 139, though, is that God is everywhere, even in Sheol. We cannot flee, or fly, or wander, or cut and run. God knows us, intuits our every move, pursues us no matter where we go. God is everywhere we are. But we forget this. (Or at least I do.) I doubt it because it feels dubious. God doesn’t always feel so close.
God didn’t feel close when I was in that dark mood last Monday…until I opened the scriptures and started contemplating what I might say in my sermon on Psalm 139. I was drawn to verse 8, curious to learn more about Sheol. Learning led to recognition. Recognition led to insight. Insight led to intention. And I went and sat on my meditation mat to remember what it felt like to be in the presence of God.
And afterwards, I wasn’t so dark and funky. My gosh, I thought, there were fifty-five students at the Presbyterian House that night, and I’m feeling disappointed? We had a great time! I met great students. We had international students, and athletes, and musicians. Our neighbors, the AXD’s, came over and brought more tables and chairs. We ran out of spoons and laughed about Taylor’s fear that the real ones might get thrown away. We shared with each other and opened up about the stress we were feeling here at the beginning of the year. Yeah, I might have been a little repetitive and rambly. But, seriously, signs of life were all around me!
So I’m not one of those Christians who believes God magically fixes stuff. There’s too much complicated crap happening in the world today that could use a good magic fix if that was God’s modus operandi. Instead, God, for me, is more of a liberating force, a presence that when I stop and intentionally seek God out, I am set free from a lot that is troubling me, I am made aware once again of the life and the beauty and the goodness that surrounds me, and I am awakened to my own best self. I may at times make my bed in Sheol, but I am not stuck because God is there, too.