“O Lord my God, I cried out to you,
and you restored my health.
You brought me up. O lord, from the dead;
you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.
While I felt secure, I said,
‘I shall never be disturbed.
You, Lord, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.’
Then you hid your face,
and I was filled with fear.
I cried to you, O Lord,
I pleaded with the Lord, saying,
‘What profit is there in my blood if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me;
O Lord, be my helper.’
You have turned my wailing into dancing;
you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.
Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.”
Psalm 30:2-3, 7-13
The remarkable thing about Psalm 30 is that this psalm, in just a few verses, traverses the different seasons of faith.
Verse 7 refers to the season of blessed order and stability—“While I felt secure, I said, ‘I shall never be disturbed. You Lord with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.’”
This is the time when we are settled, comfortable, at ease—when we are basking in security and contentment—when things are humming along—when things seem to fall into place—when life is abundant, gratifying, overflowing—when we know ourselves to be richly blessed—when God seems to be the founder and guarantor of our flourishing.
But verse 8 reflects a drastic reversal of fortune—“Then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear”—perhaps panic would be a better translation.
Inevitably our state of easeful order, equilibrium, and tranquility is disrupted by some kind of trouble that arrives with enough force to unsettle and disturb us, to arouse in us considerable alarm and anxiety—we suddenly feel in our bones the fragility of our security and, indeed, of our very existence.
Sometimes this trouble is severe enough to throw us into the kind of panic and desperation the psalmist knows about when he speaks of all night weeping, and the terror of going down to “the Pit.”
For the psalmist, the Pit is the black hole of desolation, hopelessness, extinction—to go down to the Pit is to be swallowed up in the darkness of the void.
The Psalmist doesn’t tell us what the trouble is—but we know what our trouble is—an accident, illness, job loss, divorce, not enough income to keep the wolves from the door, family strife, death of a companion—or maybe just inexplicable dread.
We Episcopalians are not accustomed to venting our anguish in such visceral, naked outcries of distress as we find in the psalms.
Most of us from our earliest years become adept at camouflaging our distress—most of us never learned an adequate vocabulary for lamenting the unspeakable trouble that at some time or other is visited upon us.
We might think of the psalmist as an inspired blues singer like Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday—the psalmist furnishes polite, civilized, moderate people like us with a language of lamentation we have been sorely missing—the psalmist’s voice can become our voice.
But, of course, the psalmist is also an incomparable celebrant of new life on the other side of trouble—a celebrant of resurrection.
And just as the psalmist exceeds us in articulating grief, so she surpasses us in the unfettered exuberance of praise and gratitude.
“O Lord my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health.
You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave….
Weeping may spend the night but joy comes in the morning….
You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack cloth and clothed me with joy.
Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you for ever.”
Something amazing happens to the psalmist on the way to the Pit—just as he seems to be tumbling into the depths of the netherworld of gloom and misery, just when all seems lost, just when he seems to be a dead duck, he is suddenly lifted up, healed, restored, clothed with joy—he can’t say how it happened, only that it happened.
And so the psalmist, sounding more pentecostal than Episcopalian, lets loose with an ecstatic anthem of thanksgiving—for it is always an astonishing thing to be resurrected from the deathly grip of doom and gloom, to discover newness of life on the other side of big trouble.
For those of us raised on huge doses of self-sufficiency and self-reliance, the psalmist’s language of praise may seem strange to our ears.
For the psalmist consistently identifies God as the superabundant, endlessly resourceful power who, when we are dead-ended and absolutely stymied, surprises us with new, life-giving possibilities utterly beyond our reckoning. .
For the psalmist, God is the always startling provider of new life on the other side of trouble.
If we are sufficiently attentive, we can hear many stories in this parish community and beyond about discovering the gift of new life on the other side of trouble.
I’m thinking of the young father I read about who said, “When my wife gave birth to a son with Down syndrome, I thought it was my damnation, but it turned out to be my salvation.”
I’m thinking of Dominique Browning who was the editor of House & Garden for 12 years—and who on a certain Monday morning in 2007 was abruptly notified that both the magazine and her job no longer existed.
For a Type A personality for whom her job was the beginning and end of her universe, this was a crushing blow.
For years her worst nightmare was unemployment, a fear she had kept at bay by being too busy to think—but now it had happened—the superstructure that had fueled her energy and motivation had collapsed.
Her job was not only her source of income—it was the measure of her worth—and now a horrific sense of worthlessness and failure, not to mention panic about her future, almost completely immobilized her.
For months just getting out of bed required a supreme effort.
Then one day she pulled off the shelf an old King James Version of the Bible she’d been given in high school—and over the next weeks she immersed herself in this book she had never read before.
She said, “I turned most frequently to the Psalms, whose gorgeous, intricate, sensual prayers blanketed me in wonder. There I found my anthem for that year, the most eloquent expression of grief I ever read: ‘I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.’”
Then she found an old volume of sheet music for J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations—though hardly an accomplished pianist, she began to falteringly pick her way through the first passages and she said, “Unexpectedly, I felt a peace suffuse my bones as I lost myself in Bach’s lines—Bach has become a nightly visitor. I am obsessed with him, his musical tricks, jokes, and puns; his charismatic energy and passion; his resilience through tragedy; his rigorous discipline; his bedrock belief in a force greater than anything human.”
She goes on to say, “Slowly, slowly, the months go by, each one a variation transposing loss, loneliness, and anger to gratitude and hope….I find room in my life again for love of the world, let the quiet of solitary moments steal over me, give myself over to joy. What a surprise! That I can cook a meal for my children, or take a long walk on the beach, or watch an osprey wheel through the sky, or set down a page of thoughts—these are moments of grace. Old Testament loving kindness, the stuff of everyday life….when I am at the keyboard, I connect with something I may have once encountered as a teenager and then lost in the frantic skim through adulthood—the desire to nourish my soul….every once in a while, I accomplish a passage adroitly. Fingers dance over keys….I enjoy myself. And I am happy for small-boned miracles.”
And so it is that a young father, an unemployed former editor, and, yes, many of us have discovered, and perhaps rediscovered again and again, the gift and grace of burgeoning new life on the other side of trouble.
The Rev. Robert Dwight
Christ Episcopal Church