Saturday, April 9, 2016

Mourning Into Morning

Psalm 30
Easter 3
April 10, 2016
William G. Carter

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.
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.
Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Her living room was filled with shadows. The shades were pulled, the curtains were drawn, and no light had entered the room, even though the sun was shining outdoors. There was a solitary lamp on the table with the dim glow of a forty watt bulb. It’s the only light in a room filled with shadows. She looked at me and said, “When will I feel better?”

Can you imagine who she is? I haven’t told you anything else about her. Is she bearing a long illness, perhaps recovering from surgery? Perhaps that is why there is little light in the room.

Is she a widow, surrounded by empty tissue boxes, still in the numbness of grief? Maybe it is five months after the funeral and everybody else has gone back to their normal lives, and life for her will never be normal again.

Or is she someone who carries a burden that nobody ever sees. The son who moved away at seventeen is now in jail, the daughter has fallen again into thirty days of rehab, her best friend betrayed her in broad daylight, or she did something that embarrassed her which now is making headline news. It is hard for her to leave the shadows. She wants to know, “When will I feel better?”

The sermon today is for her, because the Psalm is for her. Psalm 30 is filled with joy, but as we get into it, we learn it is hard-earned joy. This ancient poem knows about the reality of trouble, and it doesn’t settle on what kind of trouble it is.

There are foes, some unnamed enemies. We don’t know who they are. There is a cry for help and a declaration of physical healing, leading the editor of our English Bible to add the line, “Recovery from a Grave Illness.” The poet says, “I was on the verge of death,” sharing some worry about falling into The Pit, a euphemism for “Sheol,” the resting place of the dead. There is also mention of “sackcloth,” the ancient garb of those who were contending with humiliation or grief.

So what’s going on here? The same thing that happens in a lot of the Psalms. The specific details have been sanded away. We have a poem that rings true for anybody who knows how it feels to be in trouble. And woven within each line is hope that someday we will feel better.

I remember the day in 1998 when my divorce announcement was published in the Scranton Times. I knew the day was coming. It has legally been in progress for a year and a half, and emotionally in progress for a lot longer than that. Even though there was time to get ready for it, seeing the single line in the legal notices was deeply embarrassing, a public announcement of my private failure. The irony was that I was starting to emerge from a long cocoon, feeling better than I had in years – and there it was, in black and white: an invitation to put on a sweater made from sackcloth. 

A lot of us know what it’s like to fall into the Pit. The Psalmist doesn’t need to explain that to anybody. A text like this is a good reminder for all of us that, on any given Sunday morning, we don’t know the full story of those sitting around us. They might have climbed out of wreckage to get here this morning. Thank God that they are here!

Psalm 30 testifies that life is eventually restored, that souls can be lifted up, that healing is possible and enemies will not finally rejoice. It will take a while for anybody to complete that emotional journey, but we do make our way through. And the Psalmist says this is the work of God. It is God who heals, God who lifts. Mourning (with a “u”) will lead to morning, the dawn of a new day.

When trouble draws close, it is hard to believe that. For the writer of the psalm, it felt like God was angry. Why else would we feel like we do? The questions come, as they always do. Am I being punished? If so, what did I do that was so wrong? Is this the kind of God we have, a God who inflicts pain on us? Wouldn’t it be better for God to send a lightning bolt and finish this off?

The feelings are real, and they are raw. I thought that I belonged to God; I believed God established me like a strong mountain . . . and now, I don’t even know where God is. It’s like a game of Holy Hide-and-Seek, and God is nowhere in sight.

But at that point, the poet gives us a lesson in good Jewish prayer. It’s in verses 8, 9, and 10. “You know, God, you won’t get any benefit if I go down to the Pit. If I go back to the dust, that dust isn’t going to praise you. The dirt won’t be able to tell of your reliability.”

Do you hear what he’s saying? He’s lifting a line from Father Abraham, “Will you wipe out a sinful city if you can find fifty good people there? Ok, well, how about forty? All right, then, thirty…twenty, or ten?” (Genesis 18) Come on, Lord, you can’t wipe out the few good people you would find, if only you took a closer look. Hey, that is a daring prayer.

Or there’s that good Jewish prayer from Moses. God sees the Israelites made a golden calf to worship, and God is so angry there is fire snorting out of the divine nostrils. God’s going to wipe them out. But Moses said, “Now, wait a second, Lord. You are the Lord who brought your own people out of slavery in Egypt. If you wipe them out, what are the Egyptians going to say? ‘Their own God stole our labor force, only to wipe them out in the mountains.’ You can’t do that, God. You have a reputation to maintain.”

I think this might be a pretty good way to pray. It’s like saying, “God, you went to the trouble to get me baptized, and tell everybody that I belong to you. Do you really think it’s a good idea to heap a lot of trouble on me and leave me in despair? Come on, Lord, think of your reputation! We call you Savior, and right now, we need a little saving, thank you very much.” Did you ever realize we can pray like that? That’s one of the ways the scripture teaches us to pray.

There’s no reason to remain stuck in the shadow when we have a God who separated the light from the darkness. There is no reason to be insulated or isolated when we really need God to help. And for those of us who have been carried through the desert on grace, we should tell the stories of how we came through to the other side. As somebody once said, “Church ought to be more like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It can be a place where we talk honestly about our struggles, hear stories of how others have gotten through them, and pursue the grace, healing, and courage to begin our lives all over again. If church is not going to be like that, you have to wonder what the big deal is about it.”[1]

The second beatitude of Jesus goes like this: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4). That sounds like his commentary on Psalm 30. He doesn’t say how it is going to happen, nor does he say how long it’s going to take.

Sometimes grief feels like you are standing in the deep end of the swimming pool. You look up through the murky water and see people up there laughing, talking, and moving around. You can see that, but not very clearly. Life has slowed down. But the promise of our text is when the time is right, when our souls have been tended, we will feel better, and life will improve.

Maybe it’s like the old woman, Miz Lil, that Walter Wangerin had in his congregation in Evansville, Indiana. He stopped by to see her sometime after her husband Douglas died, and she gave him a lesson in how mourning turns into morning.

Miz Lil was rubbing her stomach. “That’s where my grief is,” she said. “It’s a heavy stone in my stomach and it will not pass. I bear it every day because I lost my Douglas. You pray it to go away but it doesn’t go. You ask Jesus to remove it and he doesn’t take it away. And in time, you realize this is the way it is. In time, the sorrow that was your enemy becomes your friend. You realize we grieve because we love.”

She paused for a minute as her pastor began to weep. Then she said, “Douglas is not far from me, nor me from Douglas.[2] She told the story. That was her ministry in that moment. How does the Psalmist say it? “So that my soul may praise you and not be silent.”

The Psalmist says, “I cried to you for help and you have healed me.” The poet who writes those words is testifying to the saving love of God. He or she doesn’t say how long it took or how it happened, only that it’s true. For those of us who still wait in the shadows, here is the promise of our own personal Easter. It is true, and it is ahead of us. Some of us know that to be true, some of us are anticipating what God promises to do. And we certainly don’t want God to waste all the time and effort that God has already invested in us!

In December 1988, the world almost lost Dave Brubeck. Yes, that Dave Brubeck. He was having a serious of heart episodes and under the care of a cardiologist named Lawrence Cohen. Dave kept putting off bypass surgery because of his concert schedule, but his grueling schedule wasn’t doing him any favors. Finally Dr. Cohen ordered him to Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut.

When you have a world-famous patient, the cardiologist can get nervous. So Dr. Cohen pulled on his coat the night before his surgery, got in the car, and went to Brubeck’s hospital room. It’s 10:30 at night, and he walks in to discover his patient with music manuscript paper scattered all over his bed. He’s writing a piece of music because he couldn’t sleep.  

Dr. Cohen said, “What are you doing, writing a piece of music? It’s the night before your bypass surgery!” Dave looked up and said, “You’re a Jew; it’s one of your psalms. ‘What can you do, I Lord? Can the dust praise Thee if you put me down in the pit? And joy will come in the morning.’” Psalm 30.

The next day, the surgery went well. Months later, Dave took Dr. Cohen to the premiere of the piece, a big choral piece called “Joy Comes in the Morning” that he had dedicated to his cardiologist. They were sitting in the box and at one point in the performance, Brubeck was smirking. Suddenly Dr. Cohen realized why – Dave had created the bass line of the piece from a transcription of his own irregular heart beat. Right in the middle of the performance, both of them laughed out loud.[3]

Laughter is possible – do you believe that? Joy can come – can you believe it? Yes. Our God is an Easter God. God will lift our souls from Sheol and turn our mourning into a fresh new day.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Paraphrased from Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary (New York: Harper and Row, 1988) 4-5.
[2] Walter Wangerin Jr., Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace (New York: Harper and Row, 1988) 31-33.
[3] From a personal conversation, October 2000. Also reported to Hedrick Smith,

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