Updated: May 23
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
May 21, 2023
Psalm 34 NRSV
1I will bless the Lord at all times; praise shall continually be in my mouth.
2My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.
3O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt the Lord together.
4I sought the Lord, and the Lord answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
5Look to God, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
6This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.
8O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
17When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles.
18The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.
19Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.
22 The Lord redeems our lives; none of those who take refuge in the Lord will be condemned.
Heartbroken. A lot of times in life we can feel brokenhearted. It may be because of a lost love, a death, a work disappointment, a family member suffering. We call it mental health. But a lot of times struggles with “mental health issues” can feel like being heartbroken. The Psalm writer knows this feeling. The writer speaks of feeling like a “poor soul.”
The good news is, the writer makes promises of hope and help to the “brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit.” This morning we are lifting up “mental health awareness.” The truth is being brokenhearted and having mental health issues aren’t necessarily different things, just different ways to talk about the pain we can feel in life. The Psalm writer understands this and speaks to the way our God is present in those times.
The writer makes several outstanding claims for God in times when we may feel brokenhearted either for ourselves or others. The Psalm proclaims God “answered and delivered me from fears,” and “heard and saved from every trouble.” It promises that God “hears and rescues,” us and is “near to the brokenhearted [and] saves the crushed in spirit.” Take note of two things the writer does that you might not expect: first, the writer is honest. Being a good person is no guaranteed we won’t experience pain or difficulty. Verse 19 says, “many are pains of the righteous, but the Lord rescues [us] from them all.” Bold promises for us, if we can bring ourselves to trust them. That brings me to the second part that caught my attention.
The Psalm invites us to relate to God not only when souls feel brokenhearted or when mental health struggles overwhelm us. The writer urges us to build a relationship with God that stands on a sense of blessing and hope. If we only seek God out when we are hurting, the truth is God will respond, the Psalm promises us that. But if we have not come to know God in other ways, we may not recognize God’s response in the times of trouble. We may feel unmet, or that God has ignored us. These fears may cause us to miss the signs of God’s help. Seeing those signs starts before we are desperate so we can come to know and trust that God is a responsive and responding God, not just a distant promise unfulfilled.
So the Psalm begins with this powerful proclamation to worship and praise God, urging us to, “bless the Lord at all times; praise shall continually be in [our] mouth.” It invites us to let our “soul makes its boast in the Lord;” to “magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt the Lord together.” The Psalm writer says these things from experience with God before the times of struggle, yes. Because of that relationship built before the troubles, the writer is able to say, “4I sought the Lord, and the Lord answered me, and delivered me from all my fears,” and again invites us to “5Look to God, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.” And the writer shares this very personal note: “6This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.” Finally, the Psalm ends by inviting us to “Take refuge and find happiness,” and to know that “22 The Lord redeems our lives; none of those who take refuge in the Lord will be condemned.”
This last part is important because way too many people have felt as if God is condemning them because they, or someone they love, is struggling with mental health issues, with being brokenhearted. Some Christians act as if they are truly already perfected by God and therefore “salvation” is reserved only for those who are like them, believe like them, hate who they hate, and reject those they reject. God sees it differently.
Talitha Arnold, in a recent UCC Daily Devotional spoke to this sense of understanding what God’s salvation looks like, [“Our Eyes Have Seen,” dailydevotional, ucc.org, May 17, 2023, ]. She quoted the story of Simeon, the old man who holds and then blesses the infant Jesus when he was brought to the Temple for the first time. The verses in Luke 2:29-31 say, “Simeon said, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples.” Rev. Arnold adds, “When old Simeon looks into Jesus’ 8-day-old eyes as the baby rests in his arms, he proclaims that his eyes have seen God’s salvation. The word in Greek is “soterion.” From the root sozo, it means to “save, rescue from harm, protect.” Simeon’s song echoes Isaiah’s promise that God would save his exiled people and bring them home safely. Simeon extends that promise of salvation to include all people.
Rev. Arnold says, “In truth, salvation isn’t a word I use much, whether in English or Greek. Neither does the church I serve, United Church of Santa Fe. For some of us, ‘salvation’ conjures up words like sin, depravity, damnation.”
She says, “we at United Church [meaning her local church, but I think a reminder to all of us as part of the wider United Church of Christ,] should not dismiss the word “salvation” in such a way that we neglect to join Simeon in thanking God for all the ways God has saved us, individually and as a congregation. Saved us from despair when the mortgage was too big or the pandemic too long. Saved us from our grief when beloved members died. Saved us from complacency when we got too settled. Saved us from fear when the future seemed uncertain.”
We could certainly be disturbed about some of those things as a congregation. And we could certainly be very disturbed by signs about the future at the wider level in our community and state and nation in regards to mental health issues. I don’t need to list them here, you know them. I believe we all need to be invested in making our wider world better. I believe Christians and churches have a responsibility and a say in policies and governmental actions that either increase mental health resources or reduce them.
At the same time I took some encouragement also from another Daily Devotional from yesterday, Saturday that came at a good time in my email inbox. Maybe you read it too, by Mary Luti, a theologian, professor and pastor. She wrote, [ “Seed Salvation,” Dailydevotional, ucc.org, May 20, 2023, ], quoting the Gospel of Matthew in 13:31-32, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone sowed in his field; it is the smallest of seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” She added her thoughts about how, as important as those big actions are, we also need to pay attention to neighbors right beside us.
She said, “When I came home from college Christmas break my freshman year, I was smarter and wiser than when I’d left home three months earlier. It was amazing how much more sophisticated I’d become. My parents weren’t as impressed when I launched into a passionate speech at dinner about the system and the culpable complicity of bourgeois people like us in All Bad Things Everywhere.”
She adds, “I said us, but I meant them. They felt it. My father argued heatedly, point by point. That was his way. I got that from him. My mother was quiet, but I could tell she wanted it to stop. Which proved my point. They’d never get the big picture. They had their heads in the sand. When it was over, I could feel my face burning. Part righteous indignation. Part … I don’t know, shame?
Her father left for the backyard. A kid he’d coached in cross country years earlier was coming to see him. He’d show up at our house whenever he was in trouble. Bad family situation, struggles with school and purpose. He wasn’t the only one. Dad gave them time.
She goes on to say, “My mother made up a plate for the old lady next door, for whom she was unofficial caretaker, doing her shopping, schlepping her to the doctor’s, the library, the bank. This was the third old lady on our block she’d seen through their later lives, especially the hardest years at the end.” Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Mary Luti adds, she, “went back to school to keep reading about how to save the world.” But at the end of the devotional she gives this prayer: “Good Jesus, save me and save the world, small seed by small seed, backyard talk by backyard talk, plate by offered plate. Amen.”
Talitha Arnold, the pastor of the United Church of Santa Fe, whom I quoted earlier, said this, which I want to close with. She adds, “Like Simeon, we have seen God’s salvation: in a new child brought for baptism, in the ongoing challenge to love this world as God loves, in the everyday joy of coming together as a congregation. Perhaps you have seen such salvation in your church, too.” I believe we can see it. In our commitment to be a WISE Church, in our welcome, hosting support groups, providing space for MARC House and FKOC and Healthy Start and more. Many of you have made up that plate for the neighbor, helped the kid next door with tutoring, or the family in need with medical advice, or more. And I know many of you do it while you struggle with your own broken hearts, your own anxieties and your own mental health challenges. That is truly saintly.
So as often as I may be tempted to give in to anxiety about the mental health of others, or even despair about our wider world, I have to listen. I have to listen for God’s voice in the Psalms. I have to look. I have to see the ways so many care for one another, acting like not-so-secret agents for God’s agenda against governments that often have what seems like the devil’s agenda.
And I see it, and I hear it, and it gives me hope. And I believe deeply in the promises of God that faith, hope, and love abide, these three but the greatest of these is love. And I believe that because I believe, I have faith, I have hope that God’s love is the most powerful force in the universe.
May that love be with you as you deal with your own mental health, or that of loved ones, as you seek to be an advocate for others, and as you seek to show that love even to the stranger, the outcast, the immigrant, or anyone struggling with hope in these days. AMEN.