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  • Doug Basler

Psalm 143 and a way out of our own heads (and screens)

Read Psalm 143

Outside Troubles

Three realities exist simultaneously in Psalm 143. Outside forces are squeezing David. Enemies are pursuing him. We are not told who these enemies are but they are mentioned three times (vs. 3, vs. 9, and vs. 12). This is David’s circumstance, his situation in life. Life is coming at him. He’s under attack. There may be a multitude of blessings in his life but they are currently overshadowed by difficulty. Troubles exist and right now they are getting the most screen time in his mind.

You know what this is like. You probably have never been chased by Philistines but you know financial pressure. King Saul has never thrown a spear at your head attempting to pin you to the wall but you know what an estranged relationship with your mother is like. You have not had to protect a flock of sheep from hungry lions but you know the lonely silence of your mind as the word “cancer” rolls out of your doctor’s mouth. Life comes at us. You lose a loved one. You are forced to retire and after thirty years of knowing what you were doing most days you no longer have a clear purpose. Your hopeful romantic relationship comes to a screeching halt. Co-workers lie about your performance on the project for their own gain.

And now we add a highly contagious virus spreading around the world. And things are happening quickly. Will my aging parents get sick? Will my kids get sick? Will I get sick? What am I going to do with kids at home from school when I still need to work? How am I going to pay my bills when the restaurant I work at closes? How far will this spread? When will things be back to normal?

Troubles exist, they are real, and right now they are getting the most screen time in our minds.

Troubles within

It is not difficult to see how the troubles without quickly lead to trouble within.

David talks about his “soul” (5 times), his “life” (twice), his “spirit” (twice) and his “heart.” All are ways in Hebrew to refer to the same thing – his essence. Who he is, at the very core, is feeling battered and beaten and broken down. It is a twelve verse Psalm and no less than ten times does David describe how he is feeling.

His images are vivid. He feels crushed into the ground. It is as if he is sitting in darkness “like those long dead” (vs. 3). His spirit faints and fails. His heart is appalled. Above all, he is disoriented. He doesn’t know which way to go. Confusion has set in.

Again, you know what this is like. Questions form in your mind that all begin with “What if.” As outside realities press in we experience fear, anger, isolation, and worry. What will tomorrow bring? When we’re disoriented we are looking for something solid to stand on – “lead me on level ground” (vs. 10). And so we search. We type in our symptoms on WebMd. We scroll through social media. We try to filter through information. We watch an episode to escape for a bit. We send a few off color text messages to friends because laughter brings us together.

We hide. A year ago, shortly after my mother died and our daughter was having a real difficult time at school I vividly remember wanting to go and sit on the floor of our bedroom closet and close the door. I’m not sure why exactly. I guess I wanted things to turn off for a while.

Outside troubles are often more than our interior resources can handle. And so we frantically seek refuge. Certainly some things help. Breathing exercises do change our focus. Going for a walk outside is wonderfully calming. Laughter is good medicine. Finding a good friend that will listen is powerful. I have heard dozens of people in crisis situations say that simply sharing their experience and what they are feeling with me for thirty minutes was so helpful – even when I didn’t have much insight or actual help to offer. But even most of these temporary helps demonstrate what we know instinctively to be true but what flies in the face of the current counsel and popular voices: real refuge comes from somewhere outside of us; we are not enough.

The Gracious Gaze of God

Troubles without and troubles within; these two realities get the most air time in the theater of our minds. They take up so much space that we often forget about the third reality that is always present regardless of what outside circumstances we face or the darkest interior rabbit holes into which we fall. God.

Read Psalm 143 again. David’s reality is not confined to his situation or his interior response. God is there. In fact God is everywhere in this Psalm. This Psalm is a prayer which means David is confident that everything he is experiencing – enemies from without and dread within – is happening under the gracious gaze of God. And so David cries out for God to hear him, to give ear to his pleas for mercy, to answer him, to not hide from him, to not judge him as he deserves, to make known to him the way he should go, to deliver him, to teach him, to let His Spirit lead him, to preserve his life and to bring him out of trouble.

David above all needs to be reminded of the steadfast love of the Lord. He thirsts for God’s presence, God’s wisdom, God’s mercy. It would be easy for David to fixate on the enemies that are pursuing him or his emotional response to that pursuit but he instead moves outward toward the God who delivers.

The Goal is Extrospection

Our tendency is to experience life as it comes blind to the reality of God. Right now, the news is coming at us every day with big decision after big decision. First all major events were canceled. Then the schools closed. Then restaurants, coffee shops, and public entertainment. Today, the limit was lowered to gatherings of less than ten people. Tomorrow it will be something else. A lot is coming at us and therefore a lot is happening within us. It is easy to become immobilized by compulsively watching the latest news feed to hear the latest update only to check again five minutes later. One more toilet paper meme isn’t going to fix the situation. We certainly want to be informed because we want to respond in the right way. But, we already know the gist of it – life as we know it will be different for a while.

I heard David Powlison once say that the goal is not introspection the goal is extrospection. We of course want to be aware of how we are responding – anxiety, fear, indifference, compulsion, anger, frustration. But the goal is not to stay there stuck in our own heads the goal is to seek out the mercies of God. King David actively look outside of himself. He remembers God’s works from of old (5). He seeks help in knowing which way to go (vs. 8, 10 x2). He affirms that God is trustworthy, faithful, and listening. His focus is not on his enemies, even though they are a real threat, nor inward in his own heart even though it faints. David strains his focus onto the God whose gaze has never veered off from his current situation.

The Fourth Reality

Psalm 143 doesn’t allude to it but there is also always a fourth reality in our lives: the people around us. If David gets stuck in his own misery and fear, frustration and despair than he will cease to be constructive as King, father, husband and friend. But if the morning comes with word of God’s unfailing love David will have the strength to walk out into that day with faith, hope and love.

The people we can have around us has been severely limited. For most of us it is a few colleagues at work and our immediate family at home. Most other in-person interaction is on hold. But the people around us and those with whom we can call and talk with need us out of our heads and present with them. Our kids need read to and played with. Our neighbors need a phone call. The kitchen needs tidied up. Those who are lonely already will be even lonelier as our current forced, but necessary, isolation continues. We need to reach out to them. But none of that can happen when we are absorbed by the daily barrage of news or stuck in the disappointment, anger or fear in our hearts of things we will miss in the days to come. Psalm 143 offers a way out - out of our heads, out of the constant ticker of breaking news, and into the presence of God.

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