Lead Me to the Rock
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson: Psalm 61:1-4
Two Sundays ago, I suggested the discipline of reading five psalms per day for the month of August. If you have been doing that, you might have discovered that the psalmist seems to cycle through anger, despair, praise, joy, contentment, wonder, trust – up and down, back and forth, sometimes fast enough to make your head spin. If we think of the psalms as poetry or song lyrics, we realize that poetry that lasts tends to reflect what is universal in human experience.
And so, as I sat with Psalm 61 this week, I wondered about the person who might say these words “from the end of the earth I call to You, O God, when my heart is faint, lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”
Who is speaking? Is it someone in particular crisis or is this a normal prayer in a normal week? What clues might help us answer that?
From the end of the earth I call –suggests that the person feels far from God, perhaps isolated.
When my heart is faint – some translations say when my heart is overwhelmed. It sounds like the speaker is in distress, that something has upset their equilibrium. This is not a routine prayer, not a grace offered before meals or a bedtime prayer. This is a prayer for serious help.
The plea is somewhat simple: "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I." The first two words could be a mantra offered to God in a lot of situations. "Lead me." "When I have to make a hard decision, lead me, God." "When my loved ones are depending on me, lead me." "When I am overwhelmed by my circumstances and don't know what to do next, lead me."
“Lead me” is a basic request, but it is also specific. It implies that I cannot do this alone. “Lead me” is different from “carry me”. Different from “fix this problem” or “change this situation.” This request suggests that if God will lead, the speaker will follow. “Lead me” is a personal request. If this is my prayer, then I am part of the equation. If it is your prayer, then you are part of it. We ask for guidance, but it is still our responsibility to move ourselves along, to follow, even perhaps to climb. This psalm seems to be speaking of a journey, a process, a development of faith, which might be something like spiritual rock climbing.
This film clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjAUiUyLfrk&t=42s tells us part of the story of a person climbing up a rock at Joshua Tree National Park. It’s only part of the story because what we cannot see are the people on the ground below. One person below is keeping tension on the belaying rope so that if the climber slips, he will be caught. At some angles, the rope connected to him is not visible, but it is there. And I wonder if God is like an invisible belayer? I actually tend to think not. I think that God does not suspend the laws of gravity or physics or biology, but I could be wrong. The kind of knowledge, that depth of understanding might just be part of the rock that is higher than I which I have not yet attained.
Also in this film, out of our sight, is a rock climbing guide. What we cannot hear are his instructions to the climber. He offers suggestions for how to place his feet and distribute his weight. When the climber is successful, the guide cheers him on. At one point, the climber says, “I’m just going to take a rest here” to which the guide responds, “That’s a very good idea.” It is in the this role, the role of the guide, that I understand God, especially in this psalm.
God is that unseen one who might stand below and call up encouragement and suggestions as we climb, or God might lead the way ahead of us and be there to receive us when we finally reach the top.
But what is it with needing to be higher? Why can’t we stay on level ground? What is the psalmist saying?
One idea that occurs to me is that when you get up high, you see the big picture. You take the long view. You see things from an different perspective. Perhaps the psalmist recognizes that being led to a higher place will create a new vantage point. And the resulting new perspective will lead to a clearer head, a better sense of what really matters, and what to do next. Sometimes we seek that higher place when we have an important choice to make. Sometimes we seek it because disorder or chaos or crisis has erupted and we realize that without knowing it, we have become complacent, accepting things that we should not have. And then, shaken from our passivity, we call on God from the end of the earth to lead us to new understanding and transformation.
Sometimes we step out of our normal routine and go looking for the new vantage point. Sometimes it comes to us as a moment of surprise.
One day a church staff person involved with people experiencing homelessness was sitting in the congregation at a service in a downtown church. As he sat listening to the Scripture reading, a homeless man came and sat beside him. He knew what would happen next – the man, finding a captive audience, would ask for money. He waited, expecting the whispered request to come soon.
Sure enough, after a few minutes, the man leaned across, “Here” he said, “I can’t stay. Will you put this in the offering plate for me?” They often give me sandwiches at this church and I just want to say thank you” He pressed two dollars into the church worker’s hand and slipped away.
Sometimes in a moment when the tables turn, when our expectations are upended and we realize it, transformation becomes possible.
We have had several funerals recently. On those occasions, we often tell stories and share memories of a loved one’s life, and in that telling, it becomes apparent what was most important to them. From the vantage point of examining many years of living, we can see the wisdom that comes with experience.
Transformation might occur when we step out of the routine and intentionally seek guidance. It might come as a surprise in the midst of daily life. It comes to most of us, suddenly and gradually, across months and years of life and change and growth, like taking a long path up the mountain.
But sometimes, transformation comes as a steep, fast climb, when we are in crisis, in the midst of loss or anticipated loss.
That is the experience of Kate Bowler. Kate is a professor at Duke Divinity School. When she was 35, she was married to the man she had loved since she was 15 and after not being able to have a baby for many years, they had a son named Zach. And she had landed a tenure-track position at Duke, one of her alma maters. She was set to take the long gradual way up the mountain. Until she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. I am reading her book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. It is a very honest and brave and sometimes funny account of the her life with cancer for the last few years.
Early in the book she identifies three questions which she says are both too shallow and too deep. The questions are:
God, are you here?
What does this suffering mean?
Some of you recommended this book to me. I have not finished it yet, but I would recommend it to you. It is impossible to do justice to it in the time we have, but let me offer a few of her observations.
One year before she got sick, she was at home in Canada for Christmas and she greeted an old friend, remembering at the last second that this friend had recently been diagnosed with cancer. The friend said “I have known Christ in so many good times and now I will know him better in his sufferings.”
When she was asked about that later, Kate said, “I didn't write the book because I thought, I have a lot of really important things to share with other people. I initially wrote it because I was trying to get down to the deepest, hardest, truest things that I believed - like, get down to those lies that I had perpetuated all along, that I needed to be shiny to be worthy of God's love and the attention of others and that I needed to achieve and be master and commander of my, you know, everything.”
She wrote because she was trying to get down to the deepest, hardest, truest things, which is its own kind of higher place, isn’t it? I read her book in the hopes of discerning those deepest, hardest, truest things myself, without having to make her hard steep climb.
Someone asked if her prayer life has changed. She said, “I think maybe it has because I think I don't have the luxury of being too sophisticated anymore. I mean, you just get infected with this urgency that comes with facing your death. And so I pray for very basic things.”
One time she prayed, “God, I don’t want to just know you better. I want to save my family. God, let me stay the mom of a boy who loves tractors.”
After major surgery in which the tumor was removed from her colon, she felt God’s presence in a new way. She writes, “In those first few days after my diagnosis, when I was in the hospital, I couldn’t see my son, I couldn’t get out of bed, and I couldn’t say for certain that I would survive the year. But I felt as though I’d uncovered something like a secret about faith. Even in lucid moments, I found my feelings so difficult to explain. I kept saying the same thing: “I don’t want to go back. I don’t want go back.”
“At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes. I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, brining notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement. They came in like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus. When they sat beside me, my hand in their hands, my own suffering began to feel like it had revealed to me the suffering of others, a world of those who, like me, are stumbling in the debris of dreams they thought they were entitled to and plans they didn’t realize they had made.”
She said, “Maybe I was just a narcissist before. But like all of a sudden, I realized how incredibly fragile life is for almost everyone. And then I noticed things like . . . It's like you notice the tired mom in the grocery store who's just struggling to get the thing off the top shelf while her kid screams, and you notice how very tired that person looks at the bus stop. And then, of course, all the people in the cancer clinic around me. That felt like I was cracked open, and I could see everything really clearly for the first time. And the other bit was not feeling nearly as angry as I thought I would. And, I mean, granted - like I have been pretty angry at times. But it was mostly that I felt God's presence. And it was less like, here are some important spiritual truths I know intellectually about God. . . . It was instead more like the way you'd feel a friend or like someone holding you. I just didn't feel quite as scared. I just felt loved.”
Sisters and brothers, I hope that our transformation may be full, that we may come to know what really matters -- the deepest, hardest truest things. Would you join me in reading these verses together?
Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to you,
when my heart is faint.
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I;
 Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason and Others Lies I’ve Loved, (New York, Random House, 2018), p. 95
 Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason, p. 121