One of the last shows I saw in New York City, was the Broadway production of Hadestown. It’s a production set in the Greek mythological underworld of Hadestown, where, Hades, lives with his wife Persephone, the goddess of Spring. The writer of this musical intertwines Hades and Persephone’s love story with another love story of Eurydice and Orpheus. Eurydice is a lonely girl, homeless and cold, not very trusting of the world. Orpheus is a poet and a musician, however, Orpheus is easily distracted by his work, ignoring all else around him. And through all these main characters, there are the three Fates, who weave each character’s destinies together with gorgeous harmony. They act as the voice in the back of our minds, they represent and voice our doubt, the lack of trust, the lack of confidence. At one point in the musical, Eurydice has sold her soul to Hades. So, Orpheus travels down to Hadestown to save Eurydice from the King of the underworld. After some battles, poems and song, Orpheus convinces Hades to release Eurydice back up from the underworld. However, the two lovers won’t be hand in hand on their journey home. No, there is a test they must past first. Orpheus has to walk in the front of the line and Eurydice has to walk in the back all the way home. If Orpheus turns around to look for her, Eurydice returns back to Hadestown. And so, it’s a test of Orpheus’ trust, a test of his confidence in his lover and himself. Through the jazzy music, the lyrists writes, “The meanest dog you’ll ever meet, he ain’t the hound dog in the street. He bares some teeth and tears some skin, but brother, that’s the worst of him. The dog you really got to dread is the one that howls inside your head. It’s him whose howling drives men mad and a mind to its undoing.” As Orpheus walks ahead, the three Fates circle him, voicing the doubt inside his head, “Who do you think you are?” They sing. “Who are you?” The doubt comes in. “Who are you to lead her? Where is she now?” The doubt comes in. “Who are you to think that she would follow you into the cold and dark?” The doubt comes in. Orpheus holds strong to his trust in himself and his trust in Eurydice, he doesn’t turn around…until…right before they arrive home. Just when they are almost there, home safe and sound, the doubt comes flushing in, he turns, and Eurydice is taken back to Hadestown.
We’ve all been Orpheus at one point or another in our life. We’ve had the little voice in the back of our head asking the questions: why would they give me the job? Why would this person love me? Who am I to deserve my family or friends? Who am I?God has never worked through me. I’m not worthy of God’s grace. Where is God working in this ever-changing pandemic world? Where has God been in my life this year? My faith in God did zero good in 2020, why should I keep relying on it in 2021? Sometimes these questions and thoughts of faith and our worth get caught in a loop in our head and all our faith is out the back door. Sometimes, it feels easier to rely on nothing than to rely on each other and God. Sometimes, we like to believe that we know more about ourselves and about God than God knows about us and God’s self. That’s simply not true, especially after we marked ourselves on Wednesday with ashes to start the liturgical season of Lent.
We prayed the familiar words on Wednesday of “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. You are a child of God, beloved in God’s sight.” We hear these words yearly and maybe we have taken them for granted in the past, but not this year. We really didn’t need to be reminded of our body’s fragility and vulnerability this Wednesday. It’s something that we are quite aware of in this global pandemic as we come up to 500,000 deaths since March of last year. For Lent, we often give something up to turn closer to God. However, this year, we don’t take that for granted either, we’ve given up a lot already. If anything, what we really needed to hear on Wednesday was the second portion of that prayer, “You are a child of God, beloved in God’s sight.” That portion of the prayer relinquishes the shame we carry when doubt comes in and reminds us that through everything that we struggle with, big or small, through every diagnosis, every financial concern, every faithless moment,through every massive change that has come with this pandemic, God claims us as God’s own and God is present with God’s fragile and vulnerable people.
This psalm that Steve read for you today was written for people who were experiencing drastic change. Who were witnessing the fragile and vulnerable moments in creation and asking the doubting questions of where is God in all of this? Our Psalmist starts out with a summary of the song and a summary of who God is, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” This verse was used quite a bit after 9/11, when the entire world tragically changed before our eyes, then too. Then the Psalmist writes about an earth changing from what was known. Mountains were shaking, waters roaring, and more mountains trembling with tumult. The Ancient Near East people believed that mountains held the sky up so the sky would not fall on them. So when they experienced an earth quake, there was real fear that the mountains, acting as pillars, would give way and the sky would come crumbling down upon them. Drastic change occurring within creation was a real fear and threat to how the Ancient Near East population lived their day-to-day life. They depended on structure and patterns in creation for survival. And let us not forget the verses that follow – the social and political chaos occurring in their lives as well. The Nations are in an uproar and the Kingdoms are slipping. There is violence, war, destruction, and I’m sure through all of that chaos, famine and disease. The listeners of this Psalm are not in a peaceful place. Things are not going as planned. They are in the midst of drastic and radical change.
Walter Brueggemann, a scholar of psalms, writes in his book, Spirituality of the Psalms, that he has identified three different genres of Psalms. Some psalms are written when life is normal and good. When things are going exactly as planned and the world feels safe and cared for. Brueggemann calls those orientation Psalms. Those tend to be the psalms of praise and thanksgiving. Brueggemann writes, “It is curious that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented.” Which brings us to his second genre. It’s the Psalms written for when everything is not okay. When the world is in disorder, when there is fear and the unknown all around us. When our world is no longer safe or what we know to be normal. When everything is experiencing a drastic change. He calls these the disorientation Psalms.
And so our Psalm today is nothing short of a disorientation psalm. It points to the world as it is, the reality of the destruction and life of the listeners. In its darkness and naming of the drastic, radical changes, the psalmist doesn’t make light of the situation, but brings it forth towards the light of God. Brueggemann writes, “The use of these “psalms of darkness” may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith” It is in our bold faith that we insist that the world must be experienced as it really is and to not pretend otherwise. As well as it is in our bold faith that in all experiences of disorder and drastic change, God is in the midst of the discourse, a present help in trouble.
And so, it goes without saying or going into any deep detail, this year has brought all sorts of challenges and drastic change to our day-to-day life. Not only has this pandemic slammed us to a full stop, but our nation has also been in tumult. And just this week, our creation once again shows us the power it has when it trembles with snow and ice, earthquakes and other natural disasters. We’ve faced challenge after challenge after tremble after uproar this year. So, no wonder doubt comes in. No wonder we question God’s presence in our life.
One thing that slammed us right in the face at the beginning of all of this, was the forced challenge to slow down, to be still, to stop, to see the world as it is and to understand the importance of our place in it. We had to immediately learn to be still and think of a stranger’s health, while thinking of our own. We had to stop in our tracks before we gave a handshake, share a hug, or even enter the room without a mask. We were forced to stay put, to quarantine at home and ponder the state of our nation, creation, and God’s presence in it. Too much time on our hands can be a real gift and it can also open our minds to our fears and vulnerabilities. When all of this started, everything seemed to slow down in the midst of the chaos. We suddenly had a snapshot of how precious life can be in the midst of drastic, radical change. We suddenly saw our mortality and limits.
Dr. Scott Kobner, the chief ER resident at the Los Angeles County USC Medical Center, was interviewed by NPR the other morning. Not only is he a doctor, but he is a photographer as well. He has made a point to photograph his colleagues and patients on the front lines of Covid-19 since March of last year. NPR, in full NPR fashion, was going through the photographs over the radio, describing as best they could the images in front of them. The reporter asked Kobner, which photo is his favorite. He said, “I think the one that’s still the most powerful to me is a photo of my best friend and colleague, Dr. Molly Grassini. And there’s a portrait I took of her, it’s in the middle of a chaos of an unexpected cardiac arrest, where a patient came in and was young and died on the way to the hospital. This was kind of early in the first surge. And the team had scrambled to get on all of their PPE and to try to take care of this man and resuscitate him. It’s a portrait of her, the doctor, looking out onto the monitor…Her eyes are the only thing that’s visible about her face. And there’s such a sense of deep hope for the monitor to show a sustainable heartbeat, some sign of life.”He goes on to say, “And to see her in that moment and to know that exact feeling of fear and vulnerability and hope all entwined together has really been something I think about a lot because I think the pinnacle of what this whole experience has been for me is seeing the people that I get to work with every single day in such a new light.” Shortly after I heard that interview, I searched for his photos online. I found the photo he mentioned and he’s right, Dr. Grassini’s eye carry fear, vulnerability, and lots of hope. She had done all that she could do, she had done everything right and so now it was up to hope, and her eyes were full of it.
That’s what this psalm is pointing to. It’s pointing directly to hope in the midst of the fragile, vulnerable, and the drastic change. It’s pointing to God. To faith. As I said at the beginning, Lent forces us to see our limits and vulnerabilities so that we turn more faithfully towards God. However, for the second time, we are entering into this season in the midst of a pandemic. It’s not difficult to see our limits and vulnerabilities these days, but it is still just as challenging to turn towards God in the midst of it. And so I hope you will embrace the stillness that has challenged us as busy, schedule driven Americans since the beginning of March of last year. I hope that when the doubt comes in, when creation moves and shakes, when the nations are in war and full of destruction, when a pandemic brings our mortality to surface, you will know that God takes us by the hand, calling us to stop, to be still, to see our place in this world, exactly how it is. Just like the three Fates in the Broadway show of Hadestown, circling Orpheus and Eurydice, naming their destinies before them, so is the Psalmist in this song too. We know God is always present in the good times, the miracles, when everything is calm and plentiful. And what the Psalmist in this piece asserts over and over again, is that God is very present and reliable when things are not good. When seas are thunderous and mountains shake, when drastic change happens, and the world doesn’t feel as safe anymore, God is in the midst of all of that, too, our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. And when we can be still, we see that God is stable, even if everything else around us is not.
Pray with me.
Loving God, we believe, help our unbelief. Amen.
 “Wait For Me (Reprise),” Genius, accessed February 19, 2021, https://genius.com/Andre-de-shields-and-hadestown-original-broadway-company-wait-for-me-reprise-lyrics.
 Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 217.
 Walter Bruggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2002), Location 271, Kindle.
 Bruggemann, Spirituality, Location 283, Kindle.
 Rachel Martin, Interview with Dr. Scott Kobner, ER Doctor In Los Angeles Captures The Toll of Covid-19 With His Camera, NPR, Morning Edition, February 17, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/02/17/968577330/er-doctor-in-los-angeles-captures-the-toll-of-covid-19-with-his-camera.