The Way Down Is The Way Up - Reservoir Church
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Lives That Work

The Way Down Is The Way Up

Lydia Shiu

May 12, 2024

Hi Everyone. My name is Lydia Shiu, my pronouns are she/they, I’m one of the pastors here. I’ll be sharing a few words with you today. Let me pray for us to get started. 

Holy and Loving God, I thank you that you have given us this day. We come into this place of worship from all different backgrounds and experiences. God, you have gathered us here to teach us and show us that you love each and every one of us uniquely and abundantly, no matter who we are, what we’ve done, what we’ve left undone. Help us to experience your presence with us even now, help us to see and feel your love, maybe through a word or a thought that hits us in a fresh new way. Bring new mercies to us this morning we pray, in Jesus name. Amen. 

It’s been a while since I’ve been up here. Last few months I’ve been leading a Bible Study with our youth group. We did deep dives into some Bible texts about Sodom and Gomorrah, and what they call the “clobber texts,” texts that have been used to hurt and suppress the LGBTQIA+ community, and texts about how nothing can separate us from the love of God. 

We discussed how the Bible has been translated and interpreted in many ways and how we are to engage and understand the Bible. It’s a big task, the Bible is a big book, but it was actually fun and interesting to learn and discuss these things together. I shared my testimony at some point, about the shame of graduating from college one semester late and how much that isolated me from my community, how I felt like a failure and alone. And how Jesus defending the sinful woman in front of the Pharisees resonated with me and felt like God was comforting me through it. Our young people listened at times with wide eyes, other times with boredom, not too different from here when you hear us preach, and they asked good questions like,

“why do you think the Bible included all that bad stuff?”


“do you think there are more blades of grass or grains of sand in the world?”

when we talked about God’s love being like the grains of sand.

I come to you today carrying our precious young people in our hearts. A new generation of post-iPhones, post-covid, tender, brilliant, courageous teens. I’m so proud of our church for being a church that not only welcomes, but fully affirms queer and non-binary kids. And I bring to us today a text that we read last week, on our last week of eight weeks together, that culminated to not just wrestling with the tough parts of the Bible, but getting to the core of the message of the Bible and what we’re doing here at church at all–that God loves us and is with us. 

I know we have been in the preaching series called Lives That Work, learning from the wisdom literatures, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and I bring to us today from the wisdom literature, the heavyweight champion, Psalms. Psalm 139, a fan favorite. We read this in the youth group together and the message carries to our young people, to y’all our old people and everyone in between. Because the Psalms express the expanse of the human condition in a candid conversations with God, from the “depths of need to heights of celebration,” it has become time and time again, one of the truest models and pictures of our own faith journeys. Yes, it’s got wisdom. 

What’s the difference between smarts and wisdom? What is wisdom and why is it so important? Well, many of us know how to be smart. We read. We learn. And most of the world is really good at teaching us what to do to make more money, be more efficient, how to be more productive, or climb the ladder of success, through university education or university of YouTube. But wisdom, wisdom is not so clear. The wise answer could often start with, “well that depends….” and follow up with a question. Even Proverbs, as pastor Steve has touched upon in other weeks, has lines that are not meant to be blanket statements but for us to consider with grains of salt applications. You can’t just take a line and apply it to all situations, like

“houses and wealth are inherited from parents, but a prudent wife is from the LORD.”

I mean… who are these parents they are talking about, get me one of those parents please. And I have nothing to say on the latter part of the phrase. 

Wisdom is not something you just learn. It’s something you live with and work out and try and feel through. Wisdom are things my mom said to me growing up, a thousand times like, rinse your mouth with water after you eat like this, “gargle gargle” and I’d be like “mom! You told me a hundred times!” And my English-as-a-second-distant-language would reply, “I know I know, I tell you a hundred times!” And these days I be like “gargle gargle” after meals cause crowns are expensive. 

Alright, that was all intro. Let’s get to the text to see what wisdom this text has for us.

Psalm 139:1-18

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

    you discern my thoughts from far away.

3 You search out my path and my lying down

    and are acquainted with all my ways.

4 Even before a word is on my tongue,

    O Lord, you know it completely.

5 You hem me in, behind and before,

    and lay your hand upon me.

6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

7 Where can I go from your spirit?

    Or where can I flee from your presence?

8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

9 If I take the wings of the morning

    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

10 even there your hand shall lead me,

    and your right hand shall hold me fast.

11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

    and night wraps itself around me,”[a]

12 even the darkness is not dark to you;

    the night is as bright as the day,

    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

    Wonderful are your works;

that I know very well.

15     My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

In your book were written

    all the days that were formed for me,

    when none of them as yet existed.[b]

17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!

    How vast is the sum of them!

18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;

    I come to the end[c]—I am still with you.

Walter Brueggemann in his book the Message of the Psalms would probably categorize this Psalm 139 as a Psalm of Disorientation. You see, Brueggeman categorizes the Psalms into 3 categories, Psalms of Orientation, Psalms of Disorientation, and Psalms of Reorientation. For example, I shared this last time I preached but that was like a million years ago, so here it is again, Psalm 1 says things like,

“Blessed is the human who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked…they are like a tree planted by streams of water

(I’m re-translating from “man” to “human” and “he” to “they”)

which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever they do propers.”

That’s how we all start. The basics. Do this and you’ll get this. A simple equation for how life works. 

But then, you live a little and you see like in Psalm 73,

“I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong.”

When we don’t see the world as we were taught, it confuses us. We were taught to be good kids. Do well in school. Get a college degree. Marry well and your life should work out just fine. The simple equation for how life should work. Maybe you even followed many of the Proverbs to the tee. But then a tragedy befalls and we’re like, but I did everything right.

  • Why did this happen to me? I didn’t smoke, how could I get cancer?
  • I was so devoted to him, how could he cheat on me?
  • I did everything for my parents, how could they give all their inheritance away?

I did everything right and I did not prosper.

And we scream at God,

how could you? You said if I just stay close to your water, my leaf will not wither, but look at this mess, withering!

Like a child, but you promised! Disorientation. 

The thing about wisdom literature I hate is that they never explain the disconnect. They don’t give an explanation for why the wicked prospers. The Bible does not have an answer to why humans suffer. Why do bad things happen to good people? Nobody knows. 

What is the Christian answer to our suffering and our disorientation? Our failures and our deep down in the pits? 

Bruggeman says this:

“The use of these “Psalms of darkness” may be judged by the world to be the acts of unfaith and failure, but the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God. Thus these psalms make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life.”

It’s included. It belongs. Your suffering. The darkness. The disorientation. The edges. The end. The limits. At the depths. It’s all included. And it’s all God’s. There’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God. 

In the King James version (which is not a personal favorite as far as translations go but some parts of it are translated quite accurately), verse 12 says:

“12 Yea, the darkness hideth not from Thee, but the night shineth as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to Thee.”

Which is slightly different from what we read earlier that said:

12 even the darkness is not dark to you;

    the night is as bright as the day,

    for darkness is as light to you.

As if dark shouldn’t be dark and dark is bad and bright is good and actually darkness should be more like light. But King James says, the darkness does not hide and the night SHINES. And that light and dark are both alike to thee. I like you okay, King James!

I’ve been learning about the false dichotomy of dark and light that’s so ingrained in us, through Black Liturgies, an Instagram account that has really some beautiful prayers. In a Podcast by the Faith and Justice Network, the author of Black Liturgies Cole Arthur Riley talked about this thing she does. She said that once a month she goes without artificial light. So no phone, computer, lamp. Just the sun and the night. She does use candles a bit but she embraces that time before the sun comes up or as the sun goes down how the darkness changes and sits with how the darkness makes you feel. What an interesting practice right? 

In fact, I think what wisdom teaches us is that actually there in the darkness, we can find that God is there in the depths. 

Richard Rohr calls this

“the way down is the way up”

in his book called “Falling Upward.” You want to experience God? A spiritual height of growth and awakening? The way down is the way up.

He talks about this in the context of how in the first half of our lives we’re obsessed with upward mobility, growing up, achieving, accomplishing, doing it right. He says,

“First-half-of-life religion is almost always about various types of purity codes or “thou shalt nots” to keep us up, clear, clean, and together, like good Boy and Girl Scouts…” 

But that second half of life, it’s really about letting go. He says,

“Like skaters, we move forward by actually moving from side to side. I found this phenomenon to be core and central to my research on male initiation, and now we are finding it mirrored rather clearly in the whole universe, especially in physics and biology, which reveal one huge pattern of entropy: constant loss and renewal, death and transformation, the changing of forms and forces. Some even see it in terms of “chaos theory”: the exceptions are the rule and then they create new rules. Scary isn’t it?”

He calls it like a secret to life, that if we are not aware of this reality, this wisdom, the same thing that Jesus was saying,

“last shall be first,”

and one of my favorite verse, 2 Corinthians 12:10 says,

“it is when I am weak, that I am strong,”

if we don’t understand this parable, life will not work. Life will be even harder than the hard suffering itself. 

If we are unable to embrace this depth, darkness, disorientation, we will never find the reorientation gift that’s offered there. Another wisdom literature, the Ecclesiastes, tells us that there’s a season for everything.

“a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot.”

You want lives that work? Go and learn what this means, as Jesus would say after he drops a doozy of a parable. It’s counterintuitive. It’s hella confusing. It’s extremely inconvenient frankly. But if you don’t invite the hard work and just keep saying, my life is fine, my life is fine, obsessed with optimizing our lives rather than losing it, (Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.), it will breakdown in the middle of the road at the most inconvenient time. 

What is the way-down invitation that God is showing you in your life right now? 

How can you release and open up that part of your life and say to God,

“Search me Lord, and know my heart?” 

How can you bring your darkness to light, or to put it in another way, invite God and invite others to be with and see you in the darkness?

Every time I pick up my kids midday, I go from bright sunlight outside to the dark classroom where they are napping. And when I first step in, at first it’s pitch black. I have to stop and not take another step cause I can’t see anything. I listen. There’s soft music playing, teachers cutting up some things for the next craft item. But the longer I stay there, my eyes adjust and I can see honestly everything. My daughter’s sleeping face. The kid that’s awake and staring at me. 

When you invite folks into your darkness, you’re giving them a gift. A gift to see the tenderness, the grace. It’s up to them if they are scared or uncomfortable, need to turn on any light in the room to make themselves feel better. But the good ones, good ones will just come and sit with you. And you’ll get to learn who the good ones are. 

I want to close with a poem that one of the youth group kids wrote. In the Bible study last week, we were quietly reflecting on the words for a full five minutes together in silence, and one of the students, Liv shared how verse 7-12 resonated with her. And as she shared, it included another one of my favorite verses there,

“if I make my bed in the depth, you are there.”

which was a verse that gave me such comfort during a time in my life where I was crying in bed a lot. And like a obnoxious cheezy pastor I started crying kind of uncontrollably and the kids are like, Uhhhhh, and so I had to explain myself and just started preaching at the teens like,

“look, if you don’t get anything out of the bible studies I did with y’all just know one thing, when you’re going through dark stuff, I hope you don’t but maybe you already have, but if you do, know God is there with you, okay? I hope when and if you ever feel alone, that you will be open to God’s voice saying, it’s okay, I love you!”

as I was blubbering about. That night Liv texted me this poem she wrote inspired by Psalm 139. She told me I could share with you all. 

“Where are you, God?”

Drowning in tears,

Surrounded by fears,

Trapped in my mind, 

Alone, confined.

At the edge of the sea,

Yet still, you see me, 

In a world stripped bare,

You’re always there,

I’m lost in the night,

God you are the light,

In every breeze, 

In the rustling leaves,

You whisper you care,

Because God, 

You are there,

You are there,

You are there. 


This girl knows what’s up. She’s falling upward. 

If life is not working out for you right now, I hope you know that even that, the not working out part, is God’s, it’s included, there, right there in the midst of your greatest downfall, God is there, meeting you, lifting you up. May we know deeply that my friend. Let me pray for us.

Emmanuel God with us, one who revealed the meaning of what it means for you to be with us through the life of Jesus, we thank you for the presence of your spirit with us and within.