Thursday, July 19, 2007

“What Can Be Done?”

Psalm 42-43[1]

When you look around at the world today, I think it’s more and more prevalent for people who care to feel helpless and hopeless. We tend to think of young people as the future, and that can be reassuring—until you step off into the alternate reality called MySpace! If you’ve ever browsed the MySpace pages of the good kids, you find links to other kids who are doing all kinds of things! The older I get the more I feel disturbed by the way things are going. It’s all to easy to say, “What can be done?” and give up.

The 1999 film The Insider is about a former executive within one of the major tobacco companies who is fired and decides to blow the whistle on them. In 1994, several of the major tobacco CEO’s testified before congress that there was no evidence that nicotine was physically addictive. The Insider is about a real interview between Dr. Jeffrey Wigand and Mike Wallace of the CBS show “60 Minutes.” What Dr. Wigand reveals is evidence that not only did the tobacco executives know that nicotine is addictive, they also added other chemicals to enhance the addictive power of their products!

Of course, in public they denied all of this. The tobacco companies launched a major smear campaign against Dr. Wigand and the CBS producer who arranged the interview, Lowell Bergman. In the end, however, the truth came out and the tobacco companies were forced to tell the truth about what they had been doing. This, of course, led to a multi-billion dollar lawsuit and reforms in tobacco advertisement [of course, none of this applies overseas, where their campaigns to create young new addicts world-wide are hugely successful!]

Before 1995, who would have believed that such powerful corporations would be made to admit their wrongdoing? I’m sure there was much hand-wringing in those days—“what can be done?”

Psalm 42 and 43 belong to a time when it seemed that there was nothing to be done. Society has collapsed: morally, due to abandonment of true standards of justice; politically, due to widespread corruption; and nationally, due to a crisis like the Babylonian exile—when all the best and brightest of Israel were deported. The situation is one that seems hopeless: the Psalmist can say, “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’ ” Because God seems absent, the situation seems beyond redeeming.

And yet the Psalmist cannot help but cry out to God for help. He expresses his longing for God in words that call to mind a man trapped in a desert wasteland thirsting for water. That is the intensity of the Psalmists longing. What is important here is that his longing is for God—not necessarily for justice, or vindication, or redemption, but for God. In the midst of what seems like a hopeless situation, the Psalmist’s cry is, “send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.” Ultimately, the Psalmist knows that the final answer to all his needs is the presence of God.[2]

How does this Psalm direct us in our day and time? When we look around at our world and feel helpless and hopeless, what can we do?

Well, for one thing, I think we can realize that simplistic solutions don’t really help. The cry, “What can be done?” is often used as a banner for those who claim that every thing would be right again if we just return to the good old days. Unfortunately, when you look more closely, you find that the “good old days” weren’t all that good! In past times, many believed that the way to change the world is to educate people—if they are educated they will make better choices. The current generation of children have undergone the most extensive anti-drug and anti-smoking campaign in history! Yet smoking among young people seems to be on the rise! Others advocate that legislation is the answer. They think that if we can just elect the right people in Austin and Washington, we can get back on track. The final “solution” is to just chuck it all—withdraw and let the world “go to hell in an hand basket”! But none of these alternatives really help us when it seems hopeless.

I think one thing that we can do is to choose to follow the voice of conscience that warns us against the compromises our culture would force on us. As Dr. Jeffrey Wigand’s story shows us, following your conscience can be difficult and costly, but the alternative is to loose your very soul.

I think at the end of the day, however, what the Psalmist shows us is the best answer. When everything seems hopeless and you feel helpless, the best “solution” is to hold on to the vision of God’s kingdom—that the God who made heaven and earth and all that is in them is able to restore all things in his new creation. And along with that, we can trust that God will sustain us with his presence in the meanwhile.

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/24/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] A. Weiser, Psalms, 352; P. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 134, 329; C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 52.

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