“From tears to joy”
Three forces converged on me this week to turn my attention to today’s Psalm. The first force that demanded my attention was historical and personal: Psalm 126 has been a powerful balm to me. Some 20 years ago, in a phase of my life best described as my “angry at God and angry at the Church” phase, I was on a retreat in Front Royal. I was not alone, but with a small group of friends, fellow Christians who were serving with me on a Board governing an independent Episcopal Church-related worship organization. Our facilitator asked us to pray this psalm. What caught my attention was the last two verses:
6 Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.
7 Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
The idea that we could make even an accusing prayer to God and he would turn our angry tears into joy was a powerful incentive to keep on praying. I remember this moment as a major turning point in my spiritual life. The promise of these verses is that, though we may be crying now, God will somehow assuage our grief and restore us to joy. Yes, I have a powerful historic and personal force turning my attention to Psalm 126.
The second force acting on me today is exegetical. That is, I have a keep scholarly interest in the psalm’s message. Given my history with this text, I want to know all about what’s going on here. A literal reading suggests that Psalm 126 was written after the Israelites had returned from captivity in Babylon in 587 BCE, an occurrence that captivated nations far and wide with the miracle of freedom for God’s people. “Look,” this psalm says, “look at the great thing that God has done for us.”
But there seems to be a disconnect in the text between verses four and five. Did you notice? The first four verses praise God for all that God has done for them, ending with the words, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.” But verse five begins, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev.” Maybe coming home to Israel, home to Jerusalem, wasn’t exactly as the people had dreamed about, prayed about, and rejoiced about. Maybe there was some nostalgic thinking going on in the first verses of this psalm.
Let me slip sideways a bit here to say that humans are wired for nostalgia. For most of us, our memory minimizes past pain and maximizes the gain, maximizes the joy. My take on this human trait is that we need to forget the pain, otherwise our species would die out. Second children would never be born if we fully remember the pain instead of the joy of the newborn, the toddler, the child, the adult that the pain produces.
So we need nostalgic thinking, but we can get trapped in glorious memories of the past. There are many churches, for example, Episcopal and otherwise, that are trapped in nostalgic prayers for God to restore them to whatever glory days they used to enjoy in the “good old days.”
The curious thing about today’s psalm, though, is that the Hebrew verb tenses are ambiguous, I’m told. We can’t tell from the psalm, as the Hebrew is written, whether God has ALREADY restored the fortunes and the joy of these people, or whether the people believe so devoutly that God WILL return them to joy that they are acting “as if” the deed is done.
Isn’t this interesting? Doesn’t this require great faith in God to be in the agony of loss and rejoice that God will provide—that God has already provided—the means for us to turn our bitter and angry tears into great songs of joy?
I have read that this is one of the psalms that the Israelites recited when traveling to Jerusalem. I wonder whether Jesus sang this psalm on HIS journey there, on this way to die?
The third force that turned me to this psalm this week was pastoral. A young woman I know who is 20 weeks pregnant with her first child lost her 40-year-old husband. How does one fill one’s mouth with laughter and shout for joy at times of great tragedy such as this? How, in the midst of raw grief, can we hold on to God’s promise of future joy?
For that matter, how do we deal with ANY loss in our life, personally or corporately?
Our psalm gives us some hints. The first five verses tell us to remember, and to claim anew, all that God has already done for us. And then (and this is the important part) we can hold on to the promise that our very tears will become the water that will bring new harvest. Our tears are somehow necessary to bring us to new places.
THAT’S a bitter idea. Can this be? Can our lament about what we have lost somehow turn us from grief to joy? Let’s try this thought out, starting with my own small angry group in Front Royal 20 years or so ago: 5 Board members and one facilitator. Three of us are now priests, and the rest are key lay leaders in the very church with which we were so upset. Our tears are, in fact, watering a new harvest—not our own harvest, mind you, but God’s.
What about Mary’s tears, in our gospel lesson today? Apparently Mary had BELIEVED Jesus when he had told her that he would die in Jerusalem. Mary undoubtedly wept great tears of grief and then anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume, an act that allowed her later to believe, really believe, in Jesus’ resurrection. That grief has led to a harvest of great faith in Christ Jesus throughout the world.
What about OUR Resurrection? Yes (I’ve been told), we used to have so many children here that we had to hold Sunday School at Goodwin House next door. Haven’t our tears of grief about our loss of children turned into the joy of teaching about Jesus to the children of our Ethiopian neighbors?
What about your own nostalgia, your own grief? What tears are you shedding in this season of YOUR life? How do you remember all that God has done and is doing for you? Do you proclaim what God will do for you “as if” God had already done the deed? And how will your tears today water the God’s future harvest, in your own life and in the life of our Church?