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How to Live When You Learn You Aren’t a Super-Hero

In the midst of life’s woundability, what is your foundation?

Introduction

I’ve been a pastor for over 27 years, but during that time I’ve always worked as a low-level, volunteer superhero. This is true. You’ve heard of Spiderman, Iron Man, and Batman. Well, just call me Invulnerable Man. My superpower? I am invulnerable to injury, sickness, failure, fatigue, and possibly even death. Or so I have thought, anyway. But then reality happens, and I realize that I am not Invulnerable Man.

For example, a few weeks ago, like any decent super-hero, I sprung out of bed to come to church. But as I bent over to pick up a stray sock, my lower back locked up. Then I was in excruciating, even nauseating pain. I texted my friend Bishop Stewart and said, “I can’t make it. For starters, I can’t get my socks or pants on.”

The Nobel Prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz once wrote a three sentence poem:

To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one lifetime.

Milosz titled that poem “Learning.” I can relate to that! It’s been a long, slow learning curve to discover that I am not invulnerable. In a similar but global way, the coronavirus may be teaching us a similar lesson: we are not near as invulnerable as we imagined. How do you live when you learn that your health, your dreams, your relationships, or your nation are more fragile than you ever imagined?

The word vulnerable literally means “to be woundable.” How do you live when you discover that life can wound you—physically, emotionally, relationally? That life can shake the very foundation you thought you could stand on?

Those are the questions behind the Psalm 62. It’s a poem written by David, the greatest king of the Jewish people. He’s probably writing this psalm after a crisis or a series of crises. Something has shaken him. Something has made him think deeply about life’s vulnerability. Life is fragile and we are so woundable.

He uses the word “salvation” four times in this little poem. For David in this psalm that word means something like foundation or security. In the midst of life’s woundability, what is your foundation? What can you really count on?

God Is Our Foundation

David starts by telling us his personal conclusion to those questions. Look with me at Psalm 62 verse 1. “For God alone my soul rests in silence. From him comes my salvation.” The word silence in this verse doesn’t mean the absence of noise. It means something more like inner clarity. For me, I picture a calm, clear lake in northern Minnesota—one of my home state’s nearly 12,000 lakes. It’s like a mirror. David says, I’ve gotten clear at the center of my being. God alone is my salvation; God alone is my foundation.

But you get the sense that this wasn’t an easy lesson to learn. David leaves clues about a great struggle. A struggle that forced him to see life’s fragility. So throughout this psalm he weaves two themes: human vulnerability and true stability. Let’s look first at the theme of vulnerability.

Human Vulnerability

First, he tells us, relationships are vulnerable. People can wound us. Look at verses 3-4.

This seems very personal to David. He knew people that were trying to attack him, batter him, push him over like a leaning wall or a tottering fence. They acted nice on the outside—blessing with their mouths—but they had a hidden agenda to take him down.

I bet you know the pain of a wounding relationship. The brilliant essayist Mary Karr once said, “One of the chief ways [all of us] suffer is by loving people who are … going to disappoint us and break our hearts ….” She says maybe your parents got a divorce or maybe you loved someone who didn’t love you back. Then Karr said, "We are all heartbroken. It's the human condition.” We try to dust it off. We say it doesn’t hurt. I’m a super-hero. But it still hurts. We are vulnerable to relational rejection and loss. Who has not felt this pain?

Then notice verses 9 and 10. It’s not just relationships. Life itself is fragile.

Who are the people of low estate? They are the hidden, powerless people. Throughout the Bible God notices the way the poor get wounded and mistreated. Refugees, unborn children, orphans, victims of exploitation and trafficking, people who cannot afford to practice social distancing—they are the people of low estate. These are the people who will be hit the hardest by the coronavirus. What does this Bible verse say about them? They are deeply loved by God, but still they are but a breath.

What about the people of “high estate”? They are the powerful, or just the more privileged, and better-resourced. They can absorb and ride through this coronavirus like it’s a hiccup. What does verse 9 say about them? They are a delusion. Why are they deluded? Because they think that their lives are not a breath. They think they are Invulnerable Man or Woman.

I’ve had the chance to travel to a number of places in the developing world, and here is what I have noticed. People living in poverty, people on the margins of life, have a keen sense of their vulnerability. I think of my friend Apa Toal, who has started a small church in the rolling hills of rural Papua New Guinea. It’s a church for persons with disabilities. Apa and his people understand life’s beauty and wonder. But they also grasp that we live in a deeply fallen and broken world.

They get the words of St. Paul who said this in the New Testament Book of Romans chapter 8: “The whole creation has been groaning in the pains of childbirth until now.” Did you hear that? The whole creation has been groaning. Something is off with creation. So followers of Jesus look at a world with injustice, disease, and death and they say, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.” And this isn’t the way it is going to be. But this is the way it is—broken, off-kilter, out-of-whack. And they groan. Why? Because they’re longing for something better—a world redeemed and healed by the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

But privileged people, like many of us in the modern Western world, live with this superhero complex. We think we can fix and control our lives. We live like we won’t grow old and die. We don’t want to admit this about ourselves, because we work hard to be nice people, but we often carry a deep sense of superiority to “primitive” people like Pastor Apa Toal. We live like we won’t stand before a holy and righteous God and give an account for our lives. We are too good for that.

So what happens to these people of high estate? Notice the end of verse 9—“in the balances they [both] go up; they are together lighter than a feather.” In other words, it doesn’t matter who you are, how important you think you are, your life is vulnerable.

Finally, one more thing. Your money is vulnerable. Notice verse 10—“if riches increase, set not your heart on them.” Riches aren’t bad. Some of you are doing amazing good deeds with your wealth. But whether you have a little money or a lot of money, it’s all vulnerable. Don’t make it your salvation.

That’s the bad news in this little poem. In the words of the poet Milosz, “May we gradually discover that we are not magnificent.” I am not a super-hero. Life is fragile and I am highly woundable.

True Stability

What do you do with this insight? Ah, I said there is so much good news woven into this psalm. Remember v1a … Why? Because God is my salvation. Then in verse 2 he repeats the same theme with different words.

Notice that word “alone”—because he uses it four times. When it comes to the foundation for your life in vulnerable times there is only one winner—the Living God. We’re all looking for a rock to stand on. We’re all looking for a fortress to run into for shelter. Well, ultimately there’s only one. And David says I’ve gotten silent about this. There isn’t any noise inside my head. And notice what he says—“I shall not be greatly shaken.”

Then look down at verse 5. This is like the second verse to a song, but did you catch the slight difference? In this verse he adds, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence ….” What’s he doing? He’s preaching to himself. He’s telling his soul, “Hey, soul, just want to remind you, life is fragile, but remember—God alone is your salvation.”

Why does he do that? Because, like us, he forgets. Aren’t we all like that? You hear the bad news of world events. You wonder what is happening in this country. You worry about your neighbors, or loved ones, or the poor. You worry about your job or your marriage or your finances. You see your own flaws and sins and failures. You may feel like the poet Wendell Berry who wrote:

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be.

And you feel like life is shaking you. And then, like the psalmist, you stop, pause, and get clear again. You remind yourself from God’s own Word—“Wait a minute! Verse 6—‘He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.’”

Did you notice how David’s song of trust in the Living God is actually growing larger? Verses 5-7 expand and deepen the song that started in verses 1-2. He becomes more honest, more raw, about how fragile life is. But at the same time, his song of trust in God grows richer and deeper. May that happen to you and me as well!

Then notice verse 8 in this psalm of David. The song of trust grows even louder and deeper. In verse 8 he’s not just preaching to himself; he’s preaching to all of us. And what does he say? Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.”

How do you act when you’re troubled, sad, confused, or scared but you’re in the presence of someone who knows the worst things about you but still loves you? You don’t worry about finding the right words. You may not even need words. You say whatever is on your mind. You are pouring out your heart —“Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.”

Now here’s something interesting. For nearly 2,000 years the church has taught that David is not the only one speaking in this psalm. Yes, David is speaking, sharing his life story. But there is someone else speaking here. Who is it? It is the Lord Jesus himself. He is the one calling us to make him our salvation, our rock, our refuge.

If that is true, then this psalm is truly amazing. Because think about Jesus. Think about his life. Who is he? In the words of an ancient Christian creed, he is “God from God, light from light, True God from true God.” But what did he do for us? What do we remember every Christmas? That he became flesh. He became a human being.

In other words, in Jesus, God became vulnerable. He became one of those “low estate” people. Poor. A refugee. Woundable. And as a matter of fact, he was wounded. He was crucified as a common criminal, a victim of injustice. As the Bible says, “Jesus was pierced for our sins. He was wounded for us and for our salvation.” How amazing is that? You can trust a God like that!

Conclusion

What does it look like when God is your salvation? During my first pastorate in Barnum, Minnesota, a little town of 460 people in northern Minnesota, I met Howard Ballou, an 82-year-old dairy farmer. A short, stocky man with huge hands and massive knuckles. His back and shoulders were strong but bent from a lifetime of hard farm work. Like King David, Howard knew life’s fragility. Life had wounded him. He knew the yearly vulnerability of raising crops and harvesting the hay. He knew the pain of losing a son, a lad named Buddy who died at the tender age of 10. He lost his wife Chloe after over 50 years of good marriage.

One day I visited him and found him asleep on his rocking chair, a big, fat Bible open on his lap. He told me, “Yea, I’m reading it again. I know the story, but I just want to see how the good Lord does it all over again. How he made us and saved us.” Howard had no cattle. No work. No wife. No son, Buddy. But he was not alone. He had a foundation. He could have mouthed these ancient but ever-new words from Psalm 62:7. That could have been Howard Ballou’s life’s poem.

What’s your life’s poem? What’s your salvation? Here are two things for sure: you have a foundation, a salvation. It’s either a good one or a bad one. And your life will be shaken. The coronavirus may not shake you. I sure hope it doesn’t. But life will shake you. Relationships will shake you. The world’s brokenness will shake you. Growing old will probably shake you. Death will shake you. The judgment of a holy God will shake you. But you and I can say with David, with Jesus, I will not be shaken. Wait, why? How is that? Ah, because “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation.”

Many years ago, a great leader named King David made a decision and settled it in his heart. It got clear as a Minnesota lake. How about you? Maybe the coronavirus is a wakeup call. Maybe something else is waking you up—some other pain, or perhaps some unexpected grace or beauty, or a deep longing for what the Bible calls shalom, wholeness out of brokenness. Get silent. Get clear. Get simple. Make a decision.

If you feel open join me in a simple prayer this morning. Wherever you are sitting you can say this prayer with me. “Lord Jesus, I want to make you my salvation. I want to choose you as my rock and my fortress. I have made something else into my salvation—maybe even something good. But today I want to center or re-center my life on you.”

Matt Woodley serves as the Editor for PreachingToday.com and the Pastor of Compassion Ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. He is also the author of God With Us: The Gospel of Matthew (IVP).

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