A Reflection on Psalm 103 for the Second Sunday of Covid 19
Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 22, 2020
Psalm 103:1-18
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
2  Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—
3  who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
5  who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
6  The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.
7  He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.
8  The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9  He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.
10  He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11  For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
12  as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13  As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
14  For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.
15  As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field;
16  for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.
17  But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
   and his righteousness to children’s children,
18  to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

These are strange days indeed.
Never in my lifetime have we closed schools and universities and restaurants and churches because of a virus.
Never in my thirty years of ministry have I pastored a congregation during such a time as this.
We are all learning new ways to be, new ways of connecting, new ways to work, new ways to worship!
We have all experienced a range of emotions over these past days, some quite unfamiliar emotions.
Personally, I keep swinging back and forth between this sense of foreboding over what might come, and genuine hopefulness over how effectively people seem to be responding to curb the crisis.
Many have confessed that they are outright afraid.
Others are trying hard to keep their anxiety in check.
Some among you feel stuck in isolation; others feel overwhelmed by having everyone at home all day.
While some are exhausted, others are breathing deeply, enjoying unexpected family time and taking a bit of Sabbath time amidst the chaos.

A person in Vernon Gramling’s Faith in Real Life Bible study commented:
“I hate being this vulnerable.”

Wow. That sentiment summarizes how many of us have been feeling.
It is hard not to feel vulnerable, especially if you or your loved one have some pre-existing condition.
It is hard not to feel vulnerable, when you’re worried about the health of the people you love.
It is hard not to feel vulnerable, especially if your monthly income is taking a hit or your retirement savings is crashing.

We are all human beings. We are mere creatures upon this earth.
Though we may not like to think about it very often, we are susceptible creatures, susceptible to wind and rain and fire and storm, and yes, susceptible to microbes called coronaviruses.

Just a few weeks ago,
many of us gathered for an Ash Wednesday service and we received the imposition of ashes.
As Alex dipped her thumbs in the ashes and made the sign of the cross on my forehead, she spoke these words to begin the season of Lent:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
The response we offered to her sobering words were: I will always belong to God.

There is some comfort to that statement, that we will always belong to God.
We belong to God, in life and in death, in calm and in chaos, in good times and bad.
We belong to God in hope and in fear, in health and in sickness.

The psalmist says it this way:
For the Lord knows how we were made; God remembers that we are dust.
 As for mortals, our days are like grass; we flourish like a flower of the field;
but then the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children,
Jesus of Nazareth became susceptible as we are.
He knew well our fears. He tasted our tears.
He knew human vulnerability and experienced creatureliness,
and offered these words from the gospel of Matthew (11:28-30).
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is well-fitting, and my burden is light.
Like Jesus of Nazareth, we are vulnerable human beings who belong to an awesome God.
God knows how we were made. God offers rest for our souls.
In the midst of the challenges before us, Jesus offers a well-fitting yoke.
He speaks of the wooden yoke of an oxen cart,
referring to how oxen partner with another in their labor in a collaborative way.
The work of pulling the cart or the plow is difficult and challenging,
especially if we are plowing fresh ground, as we are in these strange days,
but when the yoke fits well, and the partner is strong, the challenges no longer seem insurmountable.

The following quote was shared with me this week by Walt Drake.
The quote hails from C.S. Lewis’ essay, “On Living in an Atomic Age.”
The essay was written in 1948 and, though C.S. Lewis addresses fears of a very different kind,
his observations about how we live our lives in the midst of a crisis, real or perceived, resonate during these strange days.

As was common for C.S. Lewis, his voice was one of sanity and wisdom
in a world that often seemed to have lost both. To his community in crisis, C.S. Lewis wrote:
"In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb.
'How are we to live in an atomic age?' (you ask). I am tempted to reply:
'Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century
when the plague visited London almost every year,
or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia
might land and cut your throat any night;
or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis,
an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.'
"In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation…

It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces
because (there is) added one more chance of painful and premature death
to a world which already bristled with such chances
and (to a world) in which death itself was not a chance at all, but (an eventual) certainty
"This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together.
(Paraphrasing Lewis) If we are going to be (impacted by a coronavirus),
let that (virus) when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—
praying, working…reading, listening to music, bathing the children,
playing tennis, chatting to our (family) over a pint and a game of darts—
not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about (the worst that can happen).
(These world crises), Lewis wrote, “may break our bodies but they need not dominate our minds."

Last Sunday afternoon, after all the mixed feelings and anxieties of the weekend, I sorely needed some time in the woods, among the trees.
I needed some freedom from the electronic screen, away from the news cycles.
So, Melanie and I and a couple of others loaded up and drove out to Stone Mountain Park and took a long walk with our dog Chevy on the footpath around the mountain.
I love that walk, the Cherokee Trail.
Within a quarter mile, you find yourself in the woods, in another world.
There are very few people on that footpath and you would never know
you’re in the middle of metro Atlanta.
There is relative peace there, quiet, and the beauty of unspoiled nature.
At several points along that trail, I stopped and breathed deeply,
and I was reminded to be thankful – thankful for the gift of life, for freedom,
for opportunity, for health.
I was thankful for the beauty of those woods and the lakes and the blue sky.
I was thankful when I spotted a deer moving quietly through the woods,
and when I heard the cry of a songbird, and when I enjoyed the vista of the huge granite monadnock, turned yellow by the afternoon sun.
And for a while, when I was on that trail, I found myself resting in the grace of the world, and free.

Those last words hail from Kentucky author and poet Wendell Berry.
Berry wrote a poem called “The Peace of Wild Things.”
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Wendell Berry, like the psalmists of old, carries us with his words beyond real and present worries
to a larger, broader perspective of being a human creature on this earth.
Psalm 103:
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—
for the Lord forgives all our iniquities, the Lord heals all our diseases,
the Lord redeems our lives from the Pit, and crowns us with steadfast love and mercy.
The Lord satisfies us with good things as long as we live,
so that our youth can be renewed like the eagle’s.
The psalm’s primary concern is not the current human condition,
but the wonder and majesty of an Almighty God, to whom we belong forever.
The psalmist reminds us that our ultimate concern, even in the midst of uncertain and fearful times,
does not have to be the vulnerability of our human condition.
Our ultimate concern can become the spirit in which we turn to God in hope and turn to neighbor in love.
Let us look to God, our Creator, for comfort and let us turn to others to help and be helped.

Psalm 103 describes an active and powerful God who cares about humanity,
a God whose mighty hand extends down into the Pit of human frailty
to lift us up and set our feet once again on solid ground.
Eugene Peterson, in his book Answering God, claims that
“All prayer, pursued far enough, becomes praise.
Any prayer, no matter how desperate its origin,
no matter how angry and fearful the experience it traverses, ends up in praise.
It does not always get there quickly or easily – the trip can take a lifetime”, Peterson claims.
“But the end is always praise.” (Eugene Peterson, Answering God, p. 122)
I invite you today, and in the days to come, to pray.
I invite you to pray to the God of Psalm 103, a God who is slow to anger and full of great compassion.
I invite you to pray to this God does not deal with us according to our sin,
but “as far as the east is from the west, so far does this God remove our transgressions from us.”
I invite you to pray to a God who is full of deep compassion, a God whose steadfast love never ceases,
a God whose mercies never come to an end.
Yes, we are vulnerable, susceptible creatures, and one day, our human bodies will fail, though we may be beyond 100 years at that time and know nothing of it.
But God’s steadfast love will never fail.
We come from dust and to dust we shall return,
and God’s righteousness and steadfast love will always be at work among us,
and in our children, and, after we are gone, in their children after them.

Psalm 103 ends:
Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding.
Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will.
Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia