I love stories. There are a lot of reasons to live closer to the church, but one of the benefits of a bit longer of a drive is that I have had a lot of time to listen to stories. There have been some novels, the news of course, I include some that are helpful for working and preaching, and then there are just stories of people’s lives. There one in particular where the story teller spends almost an hour on one story. Sometimes there are back stories that help inform the context but it is really about one story–a moment, a day, an event. One of the last ones I listened to was this woman talking about the time she got lost in a forest on Maui for 17 days. 17 days! She struggled to stay hydrated and eat enough fruit that the forest provided to survive. She struggled to trust her instincts, her guiding spirits, the divine inside her, with a broken leg, until one day she heard clearly that this was where the helicopter would find her, and it did.
Can you imagine! 17 days in the wilderness. What you end up with is a great story! And maybe some lessons. Hindsight taught her to trust her instincts, hindsight of her story taught me that when you find a road, follow it, if it dead ends, follow it the other way. Not judging, just we learned different lessons.
But, the things that time can teach us about our struggles. While it’s not the way they are officially laid out, I wonder if we could think about the Psalms we have looked at as different times in our lives. The certainty where we start, when we encounter struggle or trauma, when we reach calm, and then like we find in Psalm 30 today, when we are able to look back.
Psalm 30 is a study on where the poet has been, on who the poet was, on how the poet has grown. The psalmist tells the story again, from the luxury of time and distance and hindsight.
I was once, twice… been completely in love, planning a future with what hindsight taught me was the wrong person. I have been in jobs or had been living out what I thought was my calling only to have that pulled from me, leaving me questioning everything.
Maybe you’ve been where I was at the beginning–full of certainty–be it a relationship, or maybe a job you love and will stay at forever, or the career path you’ve trained for that is nothing like you thought, or relying on your good health, or a hundred things that keep we are convinced will go will, will continue to go well, will always go well. A hundred things that we think are keeping us grounded, that we are unshakeable, unstoppable, unmovable. The Psalmist was there, too. Perhaps they knew Psalm 1–that the wise follow the teachings of God and so the Psalmist knew how to do that and would remain wise and certain and unshakeable.
But life happens. We can’t find our way back down on a trail that seemed so obvious on the way up and we get lost in the woods. Relationships end, jobs change, businesses fail, sometimes our bodies let us down. Sometimes it’s not even about us, sometimes it’s not personal. The Psalms talk about wars and disasters and storms and I’m sure that sometimes those weren’t metaphorical but actual storms and disasters and wars. It’s anything that shakes your world, your confidence, your faith, your hope. When you say “I would never do…” and then you realize that’s exactly what you did. These are our times of lament and going through it is hard and I really think we should be able to be honest with ourselves and each other as we are struggling in our church family, that we are able to lament and be honest and doubt and struggle and fear.
But this is the Psalmist story. There is a context given to this Psalm, it says it was used at the dedication for the temple. The descriptions were added much later then the psalms were written, so some have wondered if this psalm was written for the rededication of the temple in 160bce when the Maccabees reestablished the Jewish kingdom after throwing off their Greek occupiers. There had been sacrifices to Gods other than YHWH in the temple and they worked to dedicate it back to their God. The psalmist is remembering what had been long before, what they had experienced all these years of conquest and occupation, and now is seeing that God was present through it all. Now, the Psalm was probably much older than the Maccabean revolt, but someone found in its words truth that spoke in their current moment. The Psalmist is telling us that they are different on the other side. Because somewhere down this journey, the Psalmist had a decision to make–how will they respond and who will they become. They turned to gratitude and praise and hope.
A theory was presented to me in college that there is the way we say we think about time and the way we actually experience it. We say the past is… in the past and we’re moving to the future, we might or might not ever be experiencing the present moment. But really, we’re preparing for the future by re-interpreting the stories of our past. We are looking back at the moment of pain or loss or trauma, moments of celebration or joy or peace, and we are interpreting them through the lens of who we are now, who we have become, of the more information we have in this moment than we had at the time. Sometimes it just reshapes the way we see our past, or the history of a people or a nation, sometimes it shapes the way we see who we are today. We see it when we study history from the lenses of the oppressed instead of the lenses of the victors. We see it in our own lives. We see it in the lives of people who have processed and transformed their pain into strength and generosity.
We saw it this week in the Parents of the Parkland shooting that brought to our attention the more than 3000 students who should have graduated this year and didn’t due to shootings by convincing the NRA president to rehearse a graduation speech to empty chairs. OK, no, it wasn’t praise and thanksgiving. And honestly, I think it’s what made this Psalm so difficult for me this week. Because sometimes we lose. Sometimes we don’t get well. Sometimes we don’t see the liberation. We… I wonder at and stand in awe of the faith of those who watched their family be led off to gas chambers, who were enslaved for generations, who were marched off to camp and barren lands, it’s the loss of a child because I’m not sure how to read this Psalm for or with those who are facing suffering or death, who cry out for a miracle but one doesn’t come, because we know, sometimes they don’t, at least not always the way that we hope. There is a trust there that, a trust in God that almost makes me uncomfortable because I have never been called to trust in such a way and I would, like the Psalmist, proclaim that I could not be moved! That I would have such trust in the face of such pain, but I worry I wouldn’t.
The cry of the Parkland Parents is a call for justice, and it is a call for community. Which the psalmist does too. You who are faithful to the Lord, Sing praises. It’s a call to the community to praise God in light of the Psalmist’s story.
We do that! We celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and graduations. We celebrate new jobs and new puppies and new adventures. We celebrate good news and healings and overcoming and making it just one more day. We offer thanks to God, praise God for all that has gone well, for what we have made it through, for another day, another year, another chance.
But sometimes our laments are deep, sometimes our struggles are hard. And it’s possible that the was on the brink of death and was pulled back to life but what if the story is that Psalmist suffered great loss, that there were those around the psalmist didn’t make it, a revolt over a conquering army is not a peaceful nor safe process–not everyone made it to the temple dedication.
Even then Let those who are faithful join in. It’s what we do together. We hold each other in our suffering and our struggles, in our times of transition when it seems like the transition will last forever, when we feel we have lost something or everything, when we are our own mortality or worse–the mortality of someone we love, when we aren’t sure the miracle we want is coming, we hold each other. We hold each other in prayer, in support, in meals at each other’s doors and in visits and phone calls. We share each other’s laments and cries and struggles and sorrows. We sit with one another in the difficult places and the difficult moments. We become the beloved community to each other, carrying the hope until each person can carry it for themselves.
Until we can look back and remember what was with gratitude and joy, and we can praise God for the community and the love that rises up around us, and we can recognize the ways that we have grown and learned to love, that we can see God in the faces of those who are near us. When we no longer grieve at what was and what could have been but we praise and are grateful for what was, that we can laugh at the good memories and celebrate the good today, that we can hold all that was good and all that was hard and praise God for who it made us.
I’m going to be real honest, this sermon and scripture and lesson has been a struggle. There’s a song by Sara Groves and it starts
It’s been a hard year
But I’m climbing out of the rubble
These lessons are hard
Healing changes are subtle
And it has been a hard year, but it doesn’t always feel like we’re all climbing out, and I’m not sure we’re all feeling that we’re coming out of it the way we would have hoped, because it is hard to talk about healing when so many have died in this year from shootings and from COVID and from all the other things we suffer from. Because we’re all in different places with different struggles and how does one bring a word of hope?
But I suppose it’s that–this is not the first time we have lost, or struggled, or feared, or grieved, or… this is not the first time we have prayed for miracles and they came to us as something else.
But the Psalmist tells us, our stories tell us, our lives tell us that God is faithful. God is love and offers love, God is renewing the face of the earth and God is renewing our lives. God is turning what was into what will be. Nothing in our lives is wasted. I don’t think we’re given suffering but we are given an opportunity to learn from it, to grow in it, to become through it. And, the community to gathers around, are grow in love and become the beloved community in how we respond to the struggles, the suffering, the pain of others, how we respond to injustice in our world–how are we transformed? How do we let God transform us?
Sara Groves’ song tells again the story of Psalm 30-what it is to see God’s transforming work, even in the hard places.
But every day it’s less like tearing, more like building
Less like captive, more like willing
Less like breakdown, more like surrender
Less like haunting, more like remember
And I feel you here and you’re picking up the pieces
It seemed out of my hands, a bad situation
But you are able
And in your hands the pain and hurt
Look less like scars and more like character
I’ve had a love hate relationship with this song, perhaps like I’ve had this week with the Psalm. I’m so glad Ms. Groves you’ve got it all figured out, that we can see the hand of God transforming when sometimes in the middle of pain I don’t want more character. But I think the song and the Psalm are as much a belief in the promise as they are a memory of a moment before–God has been faithful so this, too, will be…
Less like a prison, more like my room
It’s less like a casket, more like a womb
Less like dying, more like transcending
Less like fear, less like an ending
Look less like scars and more like character.
So no matter what Psalm you are living today–Psalm 1, when you know what is happening and you’re certain of what is to come, or Psalm 13-when you’re world has been turned upside down, or Psalm 23 as you are finding rest and peace after the turmoil, or Psalm 30-with some distance from those first three; Maybe look back like the Psalmist, look throughout your life and find those stories, look back like the Psalmist did, and see where God was along your way–see where God has transformed the pain of the past into something beautiful today, see who you have become, see where your community became shined with the face of God for you, see where your wounds become scars and your scars become character and stories of how God made you new.
It is then that our mourning becomes less like grieving and more like community, and maybe someday dancing.