The fall of 1997 marked the beginning of my sophomore year of college. Being the ever hip college students that we were we often used what little money we had to purchase new CDs as quickly as they were released from the artist we thought of as cutting edge. One of those artist at the time was a southern rock Christian group from Atlanta called Third Day (at one time, they were sort of cutting edge). Their sophomore album Conspiracy No. 5 had just dropped…and we were blown away. It really didn’t sound anything like their first album that was rich with southern rock tones. But one of the songs actually did stand out. The seventh song on the album was titled, “My Hope is in You”. I remember hearing it for the first time and thinking, “I feel like I’ve heard these lyrics before”. Of course I then opened the CD jacket (I realize some of you reading this may not know what that is) and discovering the song was based on Psalm 25. It was the first time I remember hearing a Psalm sung in a way that actually caught and held my attention. Even today I find myself singing this song in my head as I type these words.
Psalm 25:1-10 is the first Psalm passage for the first Sunday of Lent for this liturgical cycle and I can’t think of a better Psalm to lead us into this season. Lent is of course the 40 days minus Sunday’s between Ash Wednesday and Easter that is set aside as a time of preparation for our grand celebration of the Resurrection. This is a season characterized by repentance, humility and real physical reminders of our own mortality. Often we as followers of the way voluntarily fast during this time in order to remind ourselves of our humanness and our dependence on God. But how do we as ministers encourage our congregations to engage Lent in a way that isn’t simply another diet or way to get healthy before Easter? How do we help them to connect the fasting of Lent to actual spiritual development and the spirit of the season? I think the Psalmist may help us understand a right frame of mind.
One of the most often used words in Psalm 25 is the Hebrew word derek. The most literal transliteration into English is “ways”, but a better way of thinking about it would be “life-style” or “way of living”. We live in a world that is increasingly contrary to a life-style dependent upon God. We have every form of security and instant gratification laid out before us in increasing measure. We get anxious when our health insurance doesn’t pay all that its supposed to or when a restaurant gets our order wrong. We lose sleep over loss of security and stress over the amount of money we are placing in retirement accounts. And yet in the midst of this world the Psalmist speaks from a strange and foreign place and says to us, “O my God, in you I trust”. Lent should become a season where we actively seek out ways to Fast that illustrate trust not in our own strength, security and intellect, but in the provision of a God best characterized by “mercy and love”. What does it mean to trust in God and not in ourselves.
The Psalmist would best characterize it as a journey, which is extremely fitting for this season of Lent. “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” (v. 4-5) We as humans are quick to turn to others for help and guidance. We have online support groups, WebMD, virtual counseling, social media, etc. but the writer is asking that God become that which guides us in the world. How do we move from seeking affirmation and guidance from the immediate to the infinite? “For you I wait all day long”. This admonition more than any other should characterize a season such as Lent. We find ourselves leaning into God as we are reminded through fasting of our complete dependency on something outside of ourselves to sustain us. Fasting, if practiced rightly, always draws the practitioner closer to the Source of Life. This is why it is so important to guide our congregations to embrace a legitimate fast that daily draws them to the point of seeking God for help and sustenance.
The Psalmist concludes this Lenten passage with the admonition, “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.”. Perhaps that is what the way forward looks like for our people. Only through humility can we see the areas of our life that lack trust in God. Only through humility can we see that God’s ways/life-style are characterized by mercy and compassion. Only through humility can the church become a reminder that our hope is not placed in things that are seen, but rather that which is unseen. Only though humility can we come to the season of Lent again and admit our utter dependence upon a God who is slow to anger and abounding in love. Perhaps that Third Day song from twenty years ago could ring true for us again as during this season of repentance we remind ourselves once more, “My hope is in you.”