Will the dust praise you?
| Psalms 30
||Sun, February 16, 2003
Rev. Ed Searcy
|This is a deep prayer of gratitude. It is filled with passion and emotion, with pain and joy. Did you see and hear the gratitude in our former premier this week as Mike Harcourt described his near tragic accident? Lying there, at the borrow of a cliff, his face sinking beneath the water and his legs paralysed he was saved. Without hesitation he named his wife as his “guardian angel”, the one to whom he owes his life. It was captivating testimony. This Psalm sings a similar song, but with one important difference. This singer names the LORD as the one who has done the rescuing. It is a song with ten references to the LORD - those capital letters reminding us that in Hebrew the text does not say “Lord” but, instead, writes the mysterious name YHWH (“I am what I am I doing”). Now, we have not been known for our comfort with testimony to the saving power of the LORD, of YHWH, or even of Jesus. Give us a former premier thanking his wife and we get all teary eyed. For that matter, let someone talk about how AA has kept her sober and we listen. But start talking about how the LORD has healed and lifted and rescued and we get a bit uneasy. Remember that first dinner that we hosted for the Native Ministries Consortium (six years ago this summer)? We had expected, well, we weren’t sure what we to expect. But we thought we’d host a dinner, enjoy some speeches and singing and then go home. We worried that we would hear a lot of bitterness and anger directed at the church because of our checkered history among First Nations people. And we did hear pain and witnessed tears and deep anguish. But we had not expected the testimony of profound gratitude to God, to the LORD, to Jesus. The stories of being saved from the pit of shame and of addiction and of abuse were not a kind of canned testimony. They had the deep and profound ring of truth to them. And as the night grew longer and longer our well-helled, west-side, university educated skepticism about this kind of testimony gave way to wonder.
That is how it works. The Psalm opens with a burst of praise and gratitude. Then the witness turns to the gathered congregation: “Sing praise to the LORD, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.” The rescued one wants the congregation to sing, for heaven’s sake. Which leads one to believe that the congregation is not singing ... or is, at best, just mumbling their gratitude. That is something we notice about our guests in the Native Ministries Consortium. They really sing. They aren’t afraid to sing. They love to sing. And they sing with volume and joy. Their singing is, itself, a kind of testimony to their deep gratitude. The energy of their singing reveals some deep place of vitality that comes from their love of the One who has rescued and saved and lifted them up. It is revealing that so much of the singing in the mainline church is so desultory, so lifeless, so hard. I imagine that this not simply because the hymns aren’t trendy enough. I suspect that singing is a powerful indicator of a community’s spiritual state. When congregations don’t sing because they can’t sing perhaps it is because they have nothing to sing about. Perhaps they no longer know in their bones what it is to live in deep gratitude to the LORD, to YHWH, to Jesus who has given the gift of a future and of hope when there was only despair and cynicism always lurking just beneath the false veneer of Sunday’s niceties. Listening to this sad singing, the Psalmist says to sing praises and give thanks because “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” And I remember one of our First Nations’ guests saying: “I know that you are feeling ashamed for what has happened, for what the church has participated in and done to my people. I know what it is to be ashamed and to be lost. I can tell you that Jesus came looking for me and that he found me and loved me back to life. And I can tell you that he is looking for you and that he will find you and that he will love you back to life.”
But a people in despair are not easily convinced of a future. For that matter, a self-reliant person or people wonders why such saving and singing is necessary in the first place. So notice that our ancient language of gratitude does not simply sing verse after verse of praise. Notice that to give thanks it must tell the story of trouble. The truth of what has happened must be put in evidence before the jury. “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’ By your favour, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain.” This is the story of a self-confident people. Listen to the pride that went before the fall. Hear the arrogant certainty of a culture and a people and a person who can say: “I shall never be moved.” This self-confidence, this self-reliance that comes with prosperity is not the place of deep gratitude to God. Oh, yes, there must be songs of thanksgiving to a God who has so richly blessed with well-being. But these are mainly platitudes and do not carry with them the story of rescue from aching loss and deep trouble. Then this people, this person who lives in strength and confidence suddenly experiences absence. The text is so brief, yet so honest: “You hid your face; I was dismayed.” That is all it says. God’s face hidden. No presence of YHWH. No doings of the LORD. No health. No prosperity. No reason for praise or for gratitude. Everything sunk low, down into the Pit of despair and despondency and loss. Notice that even in this great song of thanksgiving that we must sing the truth about the time of loss and the absence of God. Do you see? A people who sing this kind of gratitude always remember that it is faithful to be honest about loss and absence. Even in the midst of all the gratitude there there must be permission for those who find that God’s face is hidden and who are, as a result, dismayed to tell the truth. It is not wrong to testify about the huge gaps where God’s voice is mute and God’s power seems at a loss. No, this is the very place where we wait for the One who comes to lift up and to make new.
Now notice what comes next in this great prayer of thanksgiving. We are in the habit of assuming that this must be our fault. We prep are for prayers of confession that lay the blame for God’s absence on our misdoing and misdealings. But this prayer is different, somehow. It is the cry of one who will not let the LORD go quite so easily: “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?” This is the cry of a determined praiser and witness. This sounds like Jacob determined to wrestle a blessing out of God. We are used to singing “O love that wilt not let me go”. But this is different. This causes God to sing “O praisers that will not let me go.” The song does not pay much attention to who is at fault in this break between God and the people. It is more interested in describing what the people do about it. And they say “Hear, O LORD, and be gracious.” Notice that the shoe is on the other foot here. Israel has learned the “shema”. It has posted the “shema” on its doors and foreheads: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one”. Shema. Hear. Now the LORD is given a shema! “Hear, O LORD, and be gracious.” YHWH is being reminded to be YHWH, the God who is known for steadfast love and mercy beyond all comprehension. This is the determined cry of a people who long for a sign of God’s power to turn swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, to turn missile silos into grain silos and biological weapons into healing vaccines.
Then something happens. There is no description of how it happens or when it happens. Something happens. The song of gratitude announces: “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” This is a huge turn. It is a sudden change of attire. Gone is the season of grief. Gone is the clothing of lamentation and separation. Gone is the time of ending. Now, suddenly, a season of energy and dance. Now dressed in baptismal robes and wedding garments of white. Now the time of kingdom come, God’s will done. This deep prayer of thanksgiving is rooted in a miracle that is not described, but is assumed. The song dances from the longing cry to the celebratory shout. In between these two refrains the resurrection happens. We with our modern inclinations are not so easily satisfied. We want scientific proof. We want an explanation that is rationale. We want to figure out how God does it. The ancient text knows better than that. It knows that, finally, our gratitude is rooted in a God whose healing power is beyond our comprehension. We cannot describe or explain it. But we can tell the story of our fall from pride, of our season of absence, of our deep longing to be rescued and then of the surprising new life that overcomes us and lifts us and gives us a new singing voice. I remember sitting with some of you eight years ago this month, wondering if I should come to be with you. You were describing this congregation in glowing terms. It sounded too good to be true. So I asked what troubles you had, what problems I should be aware of, what arguments lingered on here. But you couldn’t think of anything to tell me. I found it a bit odd. Then, when we met again, one of you said that you had all been thinking about that. You said: “You know how it is when a person has a fatal illness. Everyone expects them to die. They expect to die. And then, one day, they realize that they’re going to live. It is a miracle. They still have all the same old problems. But now they hardly seem to matter, because they were given up for dead and are now alive. That’s how it feels with us, here. We have our problems. Sure. But they hardly seem worth mentioning anymore. We are just so grateful to be alive as a people.” And the first Sunday that I was here I noticed the singing. You like to sing unlike any other United Church I have known. Yes, you’re fortunate to have gifted musicians and leaders. But I have come to believe that singing in the church comes primarily from a place of gratitude. It begins with a people who have endured deep ache and known real grief and who have found themselves caught up by the one who lifts out of the Pit and raises from death. Such a people finds that its soul simply cannot remain silent. Such a church is profoundly grateful to YHWH and knows that this gratitude is for ever. Which is to say that such a people will keep singing in the face of future trouble and oncoming loss and inevitable grief. In the midst of a culture that is a sea of complaint and of anxiety and of despair this vibrant singing is the church’s evangelical announcement . This singing tells the story of God’s capacity to make all things new. Even this earth. Even its lost. Even us. Even here. Even now.