by Daniel Harrell
We were all children once. My daughter has a stuffed bunny named Bunny. He’s been an important member of our family for ten years. Bunny is the subject of countless stories and comic strips, the assurance of sleep at night, a companion in adventure, a comforter in sorrow, a wellspring of security, relief from anxiety and a giver of “mountain strength,” like the Psalmist sings. When we first moved to Minnesota, Bunny accompanied us to the Edina Fourth of July Parade. In the crowd hustle afterwards unbeknownst, Bunny fell from his stroller perch and was lost—hid from our sight. Needless to say, like the Psalmist, we were dismayed. The ensuing distress served as a kind of preschool prayer: O LORD my God, I cry to you for help. Dad walked the mile back in search of the small rabbit, with little prospect of finding him. But then, just over the ridge, he spied two stuffed little ears protruding up from the sidewalk. Someone had wedged Bunny snugly in a crevice to wait. And just like that, joy broke forth. O LORD, you brought up my soul from the abyss, you restored me to life from among those gone down to the cement.
Bunny traveled everywhere we went in the back seat cup holder of our car. Once after shopping at Lunds, Bunny again, unbeknownst, tumbled from his perch as the car door closed. On our way home, again crisis ensued, with terror and trembling: To you, O LORD, I cried, to the LORD I begged for mercy: O LORD, be my helper!” We turned and drove back to the store, an interminably long way when you’re only three and desperately bereft. I tried to assure, and prayed up my own frantic plea, “What profit is there if Bunny’s gone? Will the parking lot praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” We pulled up to the spot in the dark, dodging hurried shoppers with their bags, fearful that another driver impatient to park would have rendered poor Bunny a remnant of rabbity roadkill. But instead we discovered that prayers do get answered. There Bunny lay, forlorn but not flattened. I jumped out and drew him up again from the Pit and did not let his foes rejoice over him. And once back in the loving arms of embrace, mourning turned into dancing. We sang the whole ride home with delight and were not silent. “Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said. “For to such as these belongs the kingdom of God.” Maybe you remember what this was like. You were a child once too.
But then you grew up and grew out of your childlike dependencies. Became self-sufficient, someone who didn’t need so much. Confident enough to not pray as much. Skeptical enough to not trust the way you once did. Most troubles you now take care of yourself. Most problems are your own to solve. We must make our own way in the world and take control of our lives. And it all works pretty well until something bad happens and we lose control. That is what we say: “I’ve lost control.” But what we’ve really lost is the illusion we ever had control in the first place.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said later, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” What does this mean? The Psalms give us a sense. They exude with emotion and childlike faith: honest and expressive, exuberant and exasperating, plaintive and presumptuous, fuming and full of love. In all my years of preaching, this is the first time I’ve ever done a sermon from the Psalms. I’ve always felt Psalms should be experienced more than explained; sung and not talked about. I’ve felt for me to preach them would only diminish their power. Yet Carter and Jeff and Sara did a great job. Carter spoke of Psalm 30 as unfiltered relationship with God, messy and uncomfortable. Jeff compared Psalm 30 to singing in the rain, and about the new normals that come on the other side of crisis and hardship. Sara used Psalm 30 as the loom with which to weave clothes of deep joy, and how not be shy about praise rooted in pain. Marie preaches everybody’s favorite sermon each Sunday. This morning is my turn and I’m reluctant to say anything, for fear of ruining everything. That’s why I’ve brought my Bunny. Had to raise him up out of the dark pit of the back of a closet. This is the rabbit I had when I was a child.
“Change and become like little children,” Jesus said. Although we were children once too, as adults we resist this. Change is hard. Change means loss and loss brings grief. In this season of ReForming for our church, we’re being taught that the way to walk each other through change is as grief counselors. You’ve likely learned the famous psychological stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Grief counselors say we go through each stage in order. You can’t go over and you can’t go around. Sara preached last Sunday how you can’t just take an easy Jesus pill either. We worship a Savior crucified on a cross. But lose your life and you’ll find it, Jesus said. Change and become like a child and you’ll enter the kingdom of God.
Reverent Jews sing Psalm 30 every morning. It begins with a premise of well-being: a life in control and on top of the world. The Psalmist sings,“In my prosperity, I thought, ‘I shall never be moved.’” English translations convey a kind of overconfidence here, certain and unshakable and in need of a good dressing down. But the Hebrew sense is more about calm and ease than overconfidence. It’s the way we feel when we feel blessed: when life is good and troubles are few. The Psalmist rightly credits God with his blessing: by your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain. But then—just like that—the ground shifted. You hid your face; I was dismayed. The scene is like from the book of Job, where in his own ashes, Job confesses, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” You’ll recall Job got a lot of pushback about that. To which he replied in his grief, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”
Our answer is yes, because how could a loving and good God ever let hardship happen? But note the Psalmist never asks this question. With childlike faith, the Psalmist trusts fully and willingly in God as a loving Father or Mother, hardship and all. Loving parents press hard on their children. We do get mad. But, anger lasts for a moment— favor endures for a lifetime, weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. This is the tempo of every real relationship. We understand this as adults. At a recent funeral, I listened as a young husband and father eulogized his dad who pressed hard on him. With tears of appreciation, he remembered being so furious with his father about this or that discipline, and how his father would reply: “Hate me now or hate me later.” We want our kids whom we love to flourish and thrive and be good, but this is not automatic. Untended, our lives sprout weeds and succumb. True love prunes and cultivates, pressing change for the sake of depth and growth. Not that we parents always do this well. We can love our kids and still be bad parents. But not so with God. Jesus once said, since even bad dads can give good gifts to their children, “how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to us who ask?”
Full of the Spirit and now confronted with trouble and loss, the Psalmist’ first stage of grief is not denial but dismay. He believes God to be the ultimate giver of all things, but rather than lose his religion when trouble besets, the Psalmist holds on and refuses to silent or pretend nothing’s wrong or presume God doesn’t care. Like a child mad at mom, there is anger. She demands to be heard and be understood: What profit is there in my death, what good am I to you if I go down to the abyss? Can dust praise you? Will dirt tell of your faithfulness? More than frantic bargaining, we hear a fierce boldness—a defiant protest, unapologetic and insistent. I need you God, but you need me too! Who can love you more than your own child? Who knows of your goodness like me? Who can praise your faithfulness better? While some might think it a silly, I know you’ll drive all the way back and scour the parking lot all night in search of my bunny because you love me. Listen, O LORD, and be gracious! O God, be my helper!
And then, just like that, the scene shifts. You turned my mourning to dancing. Anger and despair can switch to joy that fast: we can heal and be reconciled, confess our sins and forgive, say I love you and welcome home, find Bunny back in our arms. You have taken off my sackcloth. Sackcloth is dark funeral attire and the symbol of sadness and mourning. Sackcloth is the garment of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In the stages of grief it’s the stage of depression, the last stop before accepting what can’t be changed. But for children of God who hope in the Lord, sackcloth sets the stage for resurrection. You have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes Easter morning.
Easter hope is not just for ourselves. So far we’ve applied the Psalm individually—for moments of life when we’re buried in our own ashes and darkness and rainstorms. But the Psalm applies collectively too. We’re told it was sung at “the dedication of the Temple,” most likely meaning the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the one reconstructed after the first one was demolished, once Israel returned home from its exile in Babylon. As loving parent, Israel praised God as the ultimate giver of both discipline and safe space, exile and restoration, death and resurrection—tough love, some might call it. “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” This is tough.
Some will say Israel is a foreshadow of church, and that the American church is in its own exile: pushed to the margins, excluded by culture, captivated by partisan politics and privilege, confused as to truth and failed as to goodness. We deny the statistics and blame the millennials for not going to church. We haggle over what works, jigger with the music and negotiate the theology. We get mad at the ministers and leaders and depressed because things aren’t like they were. Culture veers and interest wanes, are we forced to accept and make the best of what we have left?
No! This who hope in the Lord refuse to accept what can be reformed. What profit is there in our death, if we disappear and die? Can dust praise you? Will dirt tell of your faithfulness? Listen, O LORD, and be gracious to us! O LORD, be our helper! Instead of denial and anger and dickering and despair, as children and church we step and speak up because we know who we’re talking to. The Lord who draws us up and does not let our foes rejoice, our God who loves us and restores us to life.
And just like that, God reforms and redeems our hardship and overturns every assumption. Easter power rises out of the darkness, up from the grave and in from the margins. In Christ, God became miserably human, his clothes torn and tattered, so to abide with the least and the lost. Christ abides with the marginalized and excluded, the refugee and impoverished, the troubled and the harassed, with the belittled and the bullied, with the dead and the buried. As exiled church, we can be home to those on the margins, as excluded we can stand with the excluded. Like children we open our arms wide with love for the sad and the suffering. I was so inspired by my daughter and her classmates and thousands of children across the country who stepped up and stepped out for the kids killed in Florida on Ash Wednesday. With children we can insist sin and evil no longer be tolerated. With childlike faith to believe, we can speak truth and do good and give hope for a future that is already ours in Christ now raised from the dead. With Holy Spirit power, we can take off the sackcloth and clothe our lives with joy.
Looking at poor Bunny you can see he desperately needs some new clothes. Actually what you see is his fourth new skin. Every few years Mom lovingly refashions Bunny because love takes its toll. No doubt you’ve read or had read to you The Velveteen Rabbit. The pinnacle of the story is when a Skin Horse tells the worn toy rabbit who wants to be real, “Real is not how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” Although we were children once too, we resist change as adults because change is hard. Change means loss and loss brings grief.
So let the Psalmist be your grief counselor. Let dismay counter the seduction of denial and any pretense that all is well. To cry to the Lord is to expose the dysfunction of so-called life as usual, and express distress at evil and wrong and yes, at our own sin too. Rather than anger that consumes, let there be passion for righteousness and determination to do right. Push against fake faith and compromise ethics and the veneer of peace. Speak honestly and be reconciled, practice confession and forgiveness so our relationships can flourish and deepen. Instead of bargaining, be bold and pray hard and give grace and stubbornly love those who resist love. Let hope overshadow despair and set the stage for resurrection. As the apostle Paul famously reminds, we can gladly boast in whatever trouble and suffering comes, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” by our father in heaven who loves us and loves us.
Instead of accepting what can’t possible be changed, let give thanks to God who changes everything: who reforms and redeems and restores life from the Pit. Gratitude militates against self-sufficiency; it acknowledges your life is not your own, that you’re not in control, that indeed need you God and yes, God needs you too. My seminary professors would frown on my saying that, but it is how real love and relationship works. You have clothed me with joy so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
Walter Brueggemann, A Biblical Theology of Provocation. Waco: Baylor University Press. 2014.
Peter Craigie. Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. 1983.