Sunday, July 21, 2013

Joy in the Mourning

Joy in the Mourning
Psalm 30
July 21, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.  Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.  O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. 
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. 
For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. 
As for me, I said in my prosperity, "I shall never be moved." 
By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain;
you hid your face; I was dismayed. 
To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication: 
"What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!"
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.  
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.


Theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously said that life must be understood backward, but can only be lived forward. In other words, most of us make sense of our lives
by looking in the rearview mirror, but we can only live our lives by watching the road ahead.

We don’t know what events prompted the poet to write this 30th Psalm, but we can easily imagine, because even though these ancient songs date back centuries in time, the human emotions in them are timeless. Over the past three weeks we’ve experienced the deep humanity of these writings: the lament, the joy, the praise and prayer, the desolation and the assurance of hope.

Psalmists, like all poets, are unafraid to confront and express their most profound emotions. “How long, Oh Lord?!” they shout in agony. They walk us through green pastures and give us wings to fly to the uttermost limits of the sea. They move with us through the living of life, and through the understanding of it, pointing always, even if it is in poetic gesture, to our loving Creator, to the living grace of Jesus Christ and the continued Presence that is the Holy Spirit.

The trouble is, these old dusty words don’t give up their stories easily. They ask something of us before they will offer up their beauty. We want to skim over the surface of them and say, “Oh, how pretty!” But if we will risk a little and jump into them, we will be rewarded with an experience that we could never have imagined. So put on your swim fins and your suits, strap on your oxygen tanks and rinse out your goggles – we are going to dive down deep into this Psalm.

We’ll look through the lens of some stories of actual people, stories that are true, but not factual. (These stories are about real people, but they are composites, and so not factual stories about anyone that any of us know.)

As Amelia looks back on her life then, she still feels the bleak emptiness, the pain that made her want to die. There was a time when life was quite literally, like being in the pit of hell. It was horrible, in ways that are hard to describe. Even the sunshine seemed gray. Her husband had left her, left with their oldest child, left with a teenage girl he’d met at a convenience store. No matter how difficult the marriage had been, and it had been awful at times, she was committed to making it work.

Now, here she was, with a two-year-old, a baby on the way, and he was living with his girlfriend in a posh apartment, with a swimming pool and a clubhouse. The worst part was that he had taken their eight-year-old with him. She couldn’t stand it. Ashamed as she is to think of it now, she considered killing her child, and herself, by driving her truck into a wall.

But the truck broke down, and had to be towed, and her mother was coming to visit, so instead of committing suicide she went to work. Her prayers were answered in the form of loving family, a caring church and pastor, and a kind counselor who helped her through the worst of it. The baby she was carrying was a daughter, and the light of her life. Her two-year-old grew up, graduated from college, and married a beautiful girl. She’s a grandma now, happily remarried. And while she wouldn’t wish that misery on anyone, ever, she’s glad she isn’t still in that miserable marriage.

“O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. 
O Lord, you restored me to life!”

If anyone had told Amelia  then what she knows now, that she not only could live without that first husband, but that she would have a better life, far beyond her hopes, once she came through that misery – if anyone had told her that then, she’d have laughed bitterly. Now she can smile a wise smile, looking back at it all. God brought her up out of the pit, and restored her to life.

“Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. 
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”


Adam had a life that other people envied. His father was on the boards of multi-national corporations, and his mother was an artist. His sister had married a Hollywood producer, and through her, he’d met all of his favorite actors and comedians. He went to the best private schools and lived in the best houses in the best neighborhoods. He was admitted to Harvard law school, and when he graduated he was assured of a secure financial future, with an appointment to a post in Washington, even a career in politics, if he wanted it.

Only thing was, he was miserable. He looked around and saw unhappiness. He looked inside and felt emptiness. One night, he couldn’t stand it anymore. He went to his parents and told them how he was feeling. He told them he didn’t want to go to Harvard, didn’t want to get richer. They had him committed to a mental hospital.

It was there, through one long night, that Adam lay on his back in prayer, and when the sun came up he said, out loud, “God did not make me to live a life of misery.” Adam skipped Harvard and went to a small liberal arts college. He then went to seminary and is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian church.

“As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’
By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.  To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication:  ‘What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!’”

You each have your own story, a story of how God has turned your mourning into dancing, an old photograph of yourself dressed in sackcloth, or widows weeds,  and a new snapshot of yourself clothed in joy. Or maybe you haven’t filled in that part of the picture album just yet. If you are in that place of mourning, perhaps it is the memories of happier times  that make your sorrow more intense – the lighthearted scenes of yesterday that give your grief such weight that it presses down on you. So often, past happiness makes present grief more terrible. But it is also true that the experience of grief makes our joy more profound, more cherished.

If memory of happier times can make sorrow deeper, it is also true that memories of dark and sorrowful days can make joy more wonderful. It is only when we have been truly thirsty  that we can fully appreciate a cup of cold water, and when we have been deeply lonely that we more fully treasure our loved ones; only when we have wept in the darkest night that we truly celebrate the sunrise.

In all of those places – at the office, in the hospital, wandering in the desert, standing at the graveside, in all of those places, we find the One who loves us, heals us, restores us, dances with us. In all of those places, God is present. God knows what it is like to suffer, because in Jesus Christ, God has been there, too. God knows what joy is, because God has been here with us all along, rejoicing with us.

It has been said that earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot heal. If you are rejoicing, your joy is a balm for those who are in pain; and this community will dance with you! If you are in pain, know that this community will uphold you, believe for you when you cannot believe, sit with you, wait for you to be healed by the generous and steadfast love of God.
Joy comes with the dawn,  and when it comes, this is what it looks like:


Celebration

Brilliant, this day – a young virtuoso of a day.
Morning shadow cut by sharpest scissors,
deft hands. And every prodigy of green –
whether it's ferns or lichens or needles
or impatient points of buds on spindly bushes –
greener than ever before. And the way the conifers
hold new cones to the light for the blessing,
a festive right, and sing the oceanic chant the wind
transcribes for them!
A day that shines in the cold
like a first-prize brass band swinging along
the street
of a coal-dusty village, wholly at odds
with the claims of reasonable gloom.[1]

The dawn breaks and joy comes with the morning, and what can we do but give thanks?
When the sun sends its first rays into the darkened windows. when the morning comes,
what can we do but make our lives a prayer of gratitude? And so the ones who sat by the bedside, who stood by the grave, the ones who waited and watched, wept and prayed, they are the ones who now dance and celebrate with lives of generosity, kindness, and love.

You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. 
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Amen.






[1] Denise Levertov

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