Friday, October 7, 2016

Second-Half God

I waited patiently for the Lord;
    he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
    out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
    and gave me a firm place to stand.”
-Psalm 40:1-2 (NIV)

Those who know me well know that I’m a University of Tennessee fan —- a fan of the couch-slapping variety, if you know what I mean. (That is, if something negative happens in a game, I’ve been known to slap the couch cushion beside me.) I come by it honestly; I grew up in Big Orange country, where little boys (and probably some little girls) grew up dreaming of running through the T at Neyland Stadium, out onto Shields-Watkins field, where in excess of 100,000 screaming fanatics in orange were waiting to cheer your exploits.
    The Vols have had their best start in years this season; they’ve started 5-0, and they beat Florida for the first time in 12 years. So you’d think I’d be happy, and I am — but. Tennessee could have lost all of those games, easily. They trailed in four of them, in fact: 13-6 after the third quarter to Appalachian State, 14-0 to Virginia Tech after the first quarter, 21-3 at halftime against Florida, 24-17 at halftime to Georgia. They let Ohio hang around before finally beating them 28-19.
    My wife keeps telling me not to worry. They’re a second-half team, she says.
    Yeah, apparently, but it’s excruciating to watch. It looked like they were cooked against Georgia, when they let the Bulldogs roll down the field and score a go-ahead TD with ten seconds left. They ended up needing to complete a Hail Mary pass in the end zone to win: which, you know, they did. A win’s a win, right? They’re 5-0. But…it could easily have gone another way. I’m thankful for 5-0, but I wish the Vols would play better in the first half. I wish they’d get ahead early and stay there. Everyone tells me to be patient, but it’s easier said than done, isn’t it?
     I wonder if the psalmist ever wondered why God didn’t keep him from falling into the pit in the first place? That doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to ask, does it? “Lord, could you steer me around the pit? Could you give me a heads-up? How about some orange traffic-cones around the pit, or a nice fence or something?” God could have done that, of course, for the psalmist. And he could do it for you and me, too.
    In fact, he does. Can you honestly put a number on the pits he’s brought you safely around? No, because we take that for granted. We don’t notice the trouble that misses us, the struggles we avoid, the dangers that are kept from us. We rarely think to praise God for the obstacles we never have to overcome. We never call up a friend and say how thankful we are to avoid the dangers that we never knew were imminent.
    In that way, the pits we find ourselves in are maybe even more important that the ones we never come close to.
    The pit teaches us patience, after all. It teaches us how to wait. We learn in the pit that our lives haven’t ended, that though the mud and mire and slime are unpleasant, they aren’t fatal. It teaches us how to wait on the Lord: on his timing, on his mercy, on his power, on his compassion. We find out, in the pit, that time spent waiting patiently for God is not time wasted or lost or stolen from us. It’s the only constructive way, in fact, to spend time in the pit. It’s the only way to keep hope alive and to look forward to something better.
    The pit teaches us, after all, on whom we depend. You can’t pretend in the pit for very long, can’t pretend that you’re strong enough or smart enough or good enough to get out on your own. After a while, after your best efforts prove inadequate over and over, you realize how much you need God. You don’t see that, no matter how much you say you need him, when you’re sailing along easy and comfortable. Life makes sense in the high places, under the bright sunshine. Everything just falls into place. But when you’re down in the darkness and dampness of the pit, with the shadows so thick you can feel them and the sunlight at the top so far away that you can’t feel it and seriously wonder if you ever will again — well, then you remember how much you depend on God’s grace and power.
    If we were never in the pit, we’d miss God at his best. We’d never see him lift us out. We’d never experience his arms around us and never feel the solid rock under our feet when he sets us down. We’d miss all the wonderful ways he does it, the people through whom he so often does it. Without the pit, we’d easily think of God as history. If we worshipped him, it would be for what he once did and who he once was. We’d praise him, if at all, for other peoples’ stories. And we’d never expect, or even think we should expect, that our God is living and active and wants us to be part of his story too.
    In his peoples’ experience, God is often a second-half God. From our perspective, he comes from behind. For his own reasons, he often seems to choose to keep his intervention waiting until we’re in the pit already. His people have experienced that again and again: between Egypt’s armies and the Red Sea, or facing a deadly disease, or from deep in the depths of exile. Jesus was himself no stranger to the pit: he felt the worst of this world, experienced the depths to which human beings could sink, and even cried out in despair that God seemed far away. And yet in his resurrection God lifted him out of the pit, and in doing so proclaimed that our pits won’t hold us, either.
    “He put a new song in my mouth,” the psalmist said. When God raised him out of his pit, it gave him new reason to worship and a new vocabulary to use. In Christ, we all have reason to worship, a new song to sing. On some level, we no longer wait for God’s salvation: we have received it in Jesus. We wait for it to be known in its fullness. But, in a very real way, he has already lifted us out of the darkest pits of death, sin, and despair. So raise your voice in the new song he has put in your mouth, and wait to see his deliverance.
    He’s best in the second half. You’ll see.

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