by David Baer, July 2, 2017
Text: Psalm 30
Terry Wolfmeyer spent three years living in the wrong story. In the 2005 film, The Upside of Anger, her husband has disappeared at exactly the same time as the sudden, unexpected departure of an attractive Swedish secretary from his office. Terry, played by Joan Allen, announces to her four daughters that their father has left them. Over the next three years Terry expresses her anger and grief and confusion through drinking and lashing out at the people closest to her. She runs afoul of the neighbors by being the lone hold-out on a real estate deal, and she begins a stormy, though ultimately healing relationship with one of them, a local sports talk-show host, played by Kevin Costner. All this time she can’t understand why her husband would betray her and leave her without so much as a word for weeks, months, and then years. (Now, if you’ve got the movie in your Netflix queue, this is the part where you cover your ears… OK?) Finally, Terry accepts the real estate deal, and while the workers are clearing brush in her backyard they discover a well, and find that her husband had an accident, and has been right there all this time. All the anger and anxiety, all the heartache she suffered, flowed entirely from Terry’s insecurity. It was the wrong story. The film ends with a funeral for Terry’s husband, as Terry, sad but finally at peace, has finally begun to live in the right story.1 Sometimes a different perspective changes everything.
This summer we’ve been looking at some of the psalms. These are songs that speak to almost every conceivable human experience: joy, loss, anger, confusion, hurt, gratitude, and more. I’ve been using the system Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann proposes to help us understand how each psalm might fit into our own stories. There are psalms of orientation, that show how we might express ourselves to God when life is basically OK. There are psalms of disorientation that provide a model of how to pray when things fall apart. And then there are psalms of new orientation that reflect how our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with God has changed when we live through a difficult time.
Last week we looked at Psalm 23, which invites us to trust in God, even in the presence of threatening circumstances or enemies. That psalm is about discovering a new orientation during a time of crisis. Today’s psalm is different. The crisis is past. It’s in the rear-view mirror. But this too is a psalm of new orientation. These words are sung by someone who has gone through a time of disruption and distress, and now sees themselves and God in a new way, someone who lives with a new story, a new orientation that inspires wisdom and gratitude and joy.
“I will extol you, O Lord,” says the psalmist, “for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.” The image of a pit or a well, some kind of hole in the ground, makes us think of death, and that is probably intentional—the psalm mentions “Sheol,” which for the Hebrew people was a kind of shadowy underworld, the home of the dead. So whatever crisis has taken place, it must have left the psalmist almost completely cut off from hope, at the edge of death. Some interpreters suggest that it might have been a very serious illness, but there are enemies here too, so this psalm can describe many different kinds of suffering. This image of a pit also suggests isolation, a time of loneliness apart from loved ones, comforting surroundings, and pleasurable experience. It suggests captivity, feeling stuck.
But the pit is now gone. God has lifted the psalmist up, healed and restored the psalmist’s life. This is not a crisis that resolved on its own or quietly went away. This is a dramatic turnaround, a miracle that can only be the work of a God who rescues and restores those in dire need.
With the resolution of this crisis, the psalmist has come to a new orientation. There’s a new understanding about the past. Good health and security was something the psalmist took for granted: “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” There’s no suggestion here that God caused this hurt and distress in order to teach a lesson. But one of the outcomes of this experience is that the psalmist realizes strength and prosperity are not givens. Safety and contentment in the here and now are not a solid foundation to live on: they can vanish in an instant. The psalmist has a new understanding about the fragility of human life, but also appreciation and gratitude to God for the good things that can so often seem like part of the background: good health, good relationships, financial security. The circumstances of life may be fleeting and changeable, but God—the source of blessings when life is good, and the source of help when it isn’t—God is forever.
The psalmist has also found the wisdom that comes with perspective. Now that the crisis has passed, the psalmist puts both pain and joy in the balance, and the scale tips toward joy: “[God’s] anger is but for a moment; [God’s] favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
There is a lesson in these words about who we are as the body of Christ. As followers of Jesus who gather together as his church, we are meant to be his continuing presence in the world. And so whatever our individual experiences of hurt or distress might be, we also ought to read this psalm as a psalm of new orientation to Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus suffered death on the cross and lay in the grave. The hope and healing he had brought to hurting people died and were buried with him. But on the third day, God drew him up, restored his life, turned mourning into dancing, clothed us with joy, and put songs of praise on our lips. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” That was his story, and it’s ours as well.
Through our baptism, we believe we are buried with Christ. We share in his death. So we are not meant to push aside the discordant and disquieting things that push in on our lives, or the lives of our neighbors. “Weeping may linger for the night…” There is permission in those words to acknowledge the sadness and bitterness of loss in a fallen, hurting world. Jesus, when his friend Lazarus had died, didn’t immediately fix it—he stopped to join with Mary and Martha and all their loved ones in weeping. Are you weeping right now, or is there someone close to you who is weeping? In this psalm I hear the assurance that weeping isn’t something foreign or out of place in our walk with God, but part and parcel of that walk. Weeping may come from our own brokenness, or broken-heartedness at the pain suffered by others. But it’s a stage of a journey that leads through the grave toward everlasting life: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
Another pastor, Kace Leetch, tells the story of a woman named Melissa who gave birth to a stillborn baby girl. During the final difficult days of her pregnancy, Melissa had begun to crochet, and after her loss she continued to to make baby boot socks. Her labor of love transformed into an online business, and she and her husband dedicated the proceeds of the sales of “Grace and Lace” to start two orphanages in India. Nothing can take away the loss they suffered. But grace and blessing for themselves and others grew out of their tears: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”2
There is loss and sadness in this life. The psalmist said, “I shall never be moved,” and discovered how untrue it was… All of us, each in our own turn, will be moved. But in this psalm, and most fully in the gospel of Jesus, there is a new story, a new orientation, the promise that a night of weeping will give way to a greater day of joy. And in that new story there is more than enough reason to give thanks, to sing, to praise God now and always. Amen.
The Upside of Anger, dir. Mike Binder, perf. Joan Allen and Kevin Costner, New Line Cinema, 2005.
Kace Leetch, Notes on Psalm 30. Clergy Stuff. Summer 2017.