Monday, July 30, 2012

The Glad Game

Psalm 145
Ephesians 3.14-21

Psalm 145 is one long outpouring of praise to God, with an emphasis on God’s compassion and concern for all creation. There’s only one jarring note, in verse 20, where the psalmist asserts that God will destroy the wicked.

Everywhere else in the psalm the tone is distinctly Pollyannaish, a word that came into the English language 100 years ago from the popular children’s novel Pollyanna, about an orphan who has a relentlessly and almost naively optimistic outlook on life. She’s learned to be an optimist by playing something she calls ‘The Glad Game’, taught to her by her father before he died. Every time something happens you try to find a reason to be glad about it, even if at first you were disappointed. A modern example of playing the Glad Game would be to say, ‘Although I have been made redundant and have been unemployed for some time, I remain optimistic about the future.’

Of course, if you dig down into the book you find that the term Pollyannaish is an undeserved caricature of Pollyanna’s real outlook. She knows that bad things do happen to people and optimism is just her mechanism for coping with them, a mechanism which eventually breaks down when she falls from a tree and is badly injured. Then it’s only the encouragement of other people which lifts her out of her depression and helps her find the inner strength she needs to learn to walk again.

Perhaps the same process is going on in the psalm. On the surface it seems relentlessly upbeat and cheerful, as if the psalmist were always expecting the best possible outcome in the best of all possible worlds. Is he, or she, absurdly optimistic and good-hearted, with a false confidence based on an irrational trust in God’s power to protect us and on an assumption that the psalmist stands on higher moral ground than other people who are struggling to make sense of life? Or is the psalmist in fact challenging us to look for answers to life’s very real problems by considering the nature and purposes of God? In other words, is he or she perfectly well aware of the troubles that life brings but anxious nonetheless to find a way of coping with them that is founded on trust in God?

One way of thinking about the psalm is to see it as an attempt to describe God to someone who can’t imagine what God is like, or who isn’t even sure that a good God really exists. If we examine the psalm from this perspective then it’s a bit like someone attempting to describe an elephant or a bird of paradise to a blind person. You would have to wring every possible ounce of meaning from every word, every adjective, that you used to describe these strange creatures, otherwise the blind person would simply have no concept of what they were actually like.

So in this section of the psalm we’re told that the first thing to remember, however bad life might get, is that God is gracious and compassionate. He suffers alongside us and his love is steadfast. Nothing can shake it or undermine it. No matter how much appearances might seem to contradict this idea, we really od have to cling on to the belief that God is good to all and has compassion for everything in creation. The only proper response, like Pollyanna’s. is to go on praising God and blessing him for his goodness.

The role of believers, then, is simply to keep on telling all the incredulous people around us about the glory and power of God until they believe it too, in spite of themselves. And that’s precisely what Pollyanna does. She goes on telling other people to be glad until, eventually, they’re inspired to come and lift her spirits when she runs out of gladness and descends into despair and gloom.

It’s not absolutely clear what the psalmist means when w eget to verses 11 and 12. He or she could be talking simply about the calling that God entrusts to us as believers. We are definitely called to speak about God’s power and glory. Are we also being called - as the translators of the Revised Version of the Bible thought - to make known to other people God’s mighty deeds and the splendour of his kingdom? Unlike the fleeting empire of Solomon, or the thousand year reich proclaimed by Adolf Hitler, or for that matter the British Empire on which the sun never set, God’s power to overcome evil will endure and have dominion for ever. It is everlasting.

Or is God a partner with us in this work of proclamation. Are we only being challenged to tell people that God himself has the power to make known his mighty deeds and the glories of his kingdom? Is this what the psalmist means when he or she says that ‘all your works shall give praise to you’? Does the whole created order testify to the goodness, compassion and mercy of God? The translators of the New Revised Standard Version and the Revised English Bible leave the question hanging by choosing an ambiguous interpretation of the psalmist’s words.

Perhaps, like all good poetry, the psalm is capable of holding more than one meaning. And again, which interpretation you prefer depends on how sympathetic you are to Pollyanna’s Gladness Game. Are you the kind of person who can find something to celebrate about wasps, and stinging jelly fish, and earthquakes and volcanoes? If so, then all creation can join in the song of praise about God’s goodness, compassion and kindness? If, on the other hand, you find it hard to be relentlessly optimistic in the face to pain and tragedy, if you find nature red in tooth and claw hard to interpret as proof of God’s loving purpose, then you might think God is calling us to work hard to explain how - despite these contradictory signs - we should still go on celebrating his goodness.

The last part of the section we have read tonight, moves on to promise that even when the going gets really tough we should still hold on to faith in God’s compassion. Like Pollyanna, the psalmist doesn’t deny that bad things happen; instead, he asserts that we should go on trusting God to help us even when bad things happen.  There is still reason to be glad even when we are stumbling, when we are bowed down with worries or pain or stress. This is precisely the moment when we need to raise our eyes in hope to God, expecting his support, his out-stretched hand, his favour. For, says the psalmist, it is in God’s nature to uphold those who are falling, to raise up those who are bowed down, to show favour to those who are in genuine need, to act justly and with kindness.

This psalm is in today’s lectionary because of verse 15, ‘you give them their food when it is due’. It links with the Gospel reading, which is The Feeding of the 5,000, but raises precisely the same questions. How can we go on trusting that God will provide in a world where starvation and malnutrition, disaster and conflict are never out of the headlines? Is it absurdly optimistic to go on believing that God will satisfy the needs of every living thing?

It could easily seem so, but what the psalmist is asserting is that - however contrary appearances may seem - God is unchanging and ever-faithful. His nature is to be compassionate and he keeps faith with us. He is just in all his ways, kind in all his doings and near to all who call on him. Sometimes, says the psalmist, we just have to keep on saying this, even when we could easily give way to doubt and despair. We have to keep on hoping, because it’s true.

Maybe, in the end, there is something Pollyannaish - in the worst sense of that word - in the psalmist’s relentless and unexplained optimism. He or she continues to believe in God’s loving kindness without any concincing reason - just because of a gut feeling that it’s true. But the psalmist’s instinct is ultimately vindicated, for Christians, by the incarnation and especially by the cross. Here is the evidence for God’s enduring love and power which the psalmist could not provide. I pray, says the writer of Ephesians chapter 3, that you may have the power to comprehend, with all believers, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, of Christ’s love, and to know it though it is beyond knowledge.

The ultimate reason to be glad is that even when things going horribly wrong God is near to us in Jesus. His kindness, compassion, justice and love are constantly affirmed by his willingness to share our life and death. Even when creation falters, the cross speaks of the glory of his kingdom and tells of his enduring power over evil and suffering. So let us continue to make known God’s might deeds and be glad.

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