Psummer of Psalms: Reorientation

 

Meadow
For the audio version of this sermon, click here.

 

Psalm 30

Re-orientation

I want to share a couple of poems that I believe will resonate with everyone here in one way or another.

Now by Prince Redcloud

Close the bar-b-que
Close the sun
Close the home-run-games we won
Close the picnic
Close the pool
Close the summer
Open school [1]

Or perhaps this one, Welcome Back to School, A Funny School Poem for Kids by Kenn Nesbitt.

“Dear students, the summer has ended.
The school year at last has begun.
But this year is totally different.
We’re going to only have fun.
“We won’t study any mathematics,
and recess will last all day long.
Instead of the pledge of allegiance,
we’ll belt out a rock-and-roll song.
“We’ll only play games in the classroom.
You’re welcome to bring in your toys.
It’s okay to run in the hallways.
It’s great if you make lots of noise.
“For homework, you’ll play your Nintendo.
You’ll have to watch lots of T.V.
For field trips we’ll go to the movies
and get lots of candy for free.
“The lunchroom will only serve chocolate
and triple fudge sundaes supreme.”
Yes, that’s what I heard from my teacher
before I woke up from my dream. [2]

I realize that we are more than a month from starting all of this again but every year, millions of school children walk down halls and corridors with their parents looking at signs and plaques on the doors to find just the right one. For the parent, they are thinking things like, “Will they have a good teacher?” or “Will their class be a good group of kids?” The student is probably thinking along with the Continental Philosopher Michel Foucault, “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (Foucault 1979, 228) or “Schools serve the same social functions as prisons and mental institutions – to define, classify, control, and regulate people.”[3]  Students will complain that their friend is in another class. Parents will complain about teachers and administrators. Teachers will suffer through the onslaught on both counts and try to make the best of it, while lamenting their own luck of the draw. Michel Foucault once wrote, “Everyone will like some things and not so much like others.

But for the student, going back to school is a memory jog to get them back into the right frame of mind. They have three months (if they are lucky) of running, playing, goofing off or if they are older, working and are now having to reset their mind around a building, a group of classmates, and a set of teachers. They are the same in some ways (still students, still with most of the same people they have known for years) but they are different in others (older, different interests). Coming to school requires that they bring themselves physically and mentally (we hope) to a familiar but not quite the same situation. It is an opportunity to start again. It is a re-orientation.

Experiential Psalms

As we said last week, the Psalms are rooted in the life experiences of both the Israelite people and the individuals who wrote them and in some cases, edited them after the fact. The truth that they speak to us one born of having lived life in comfortable times and troubled times, the times when we could almost see God standing next to us and the times when we could not find God for anything. Psalm 30 is the kind of Psalm that was written in a quiet moment after everything has died down, on the other side of challenging times when you can look back on the journey and see that God helped you to get through it. It is a Psalm forged in the fires of pain written after the burns have cooled and healed. For the Psalmist, the time of great crisis is over and God has delivered them safely through. Rolf Jacobson writes,

“Psalm 30 is a song of thanks, which would was composed for moment when the person of faith has made it through the time of crisis — when one has climbed out of the darkest vale of Psalm 23, and now can now look back from a place and time of safety.”

The Psalmist is however, no fool. Despite coming into a time of relative peace, they know that the road could lead to more difficulty. They remember the past, deliverance or not, and hopefully the lessons learned in them. Psalm 30 gives us an understanding, a pattern of how we might respond to God having gone through circumstances similar to the Psalmist.

The first three verses are a praise to God. The Psalmist has been “pulled up”, “his enemies will not celebrate over him”. This was in response to him crying out to God who healed him, bringing him back from what seemed like certain doom. The writer of the psalm recognizes what God has done to bring him back to a place of safety and refuge. There is a sense that the writer has created a pattern and response, a common expression in the Psalms, where one cries out and God responds to their cry. This is a thread throughout the Jewish scriptures as the people were in bondage to Egypt, cried out and God responded. The same happens in the time of the Judges and the time of the Kings and the time of prophets and in the Babylonian/Assyrian captivity. Consider how much like our own life this is, how similar to our own pattern of behavior. Whether we cry out to God, to our parents as children, to our spouses and friends as adults, we cry out in the time of trouble or distress with the expectation of being rescued and restored.

But restoration brings forth praise and not just our own but that of others. Notice how in verses four and five the Psalmist calls on those “who are faithful to the Lord” to “sing praises unto him; give thanks to his holy name.” The people who are hearing this are being called to celebrate what God is doing but also by implication to remember what God has done for them as well. The statements made in this section are general statements about how God has moved not only in the life of the person writing and inviting others to respond but in the lives of all who walked in the writer’s shoes. For instance, some theologians believe that this Psalm may have been written as a parallel or similar text to Hezekiah’s ‘composition when he was sick and then recovered from his illness.’[4] In it, Hezekiah recounts his illness and then calls on the people to celebrate with him saying, “The Lord has truly saved me, and we will make music at the Lord’s house all the days of our lives.” The idea here is that for one of us to be rescued is reason for all of us to celebrate, a communal act of praise in response to God restoring one of us and, I believe, an opportunity for all to remember those times that God restored us in the past.

The writer of the Psalm then begins to recount their circumstances in a general way. They remembered being a person comfortable with where they were and how life was going, feeling like God’s presence was there and would never be anywhere else. How often do we find ourselves in this place where we too feel comfort with our faith and our connection to God? How often do we make assumptions about our relationship with and to God and accept the idea that all is good and will stay that way? But then we like Psalmist remember how the bottom fell out as it did in Psalm 13 a few weeks ago and then we cry out to God as we did before. As the Psalmist remembers, I believe he renews a commitment to live in the presence of God.

We see that commitment in the closing section of the Psalm where the writer declares,

You changed my mourning into dancing.
You took off my funeral clothes
and dressed me up in joy
so that my whole being
might sing praises to you and never stop.
Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

This is one of the most famous quotes in the Psalms, emblazoned on practically every surface that can be found at Lifeway, Cokesbury, and other Christian bookstores and websites. The idea is so engaging and desirous to us that many declare it as a life verse or going even further (though unadvisedly so at times) ‘claim’ these verses as a personal promise made to them by God. If we look at this closely however, we see that this is a personal celebration, one we can relate to and certainly agree with but not a promise to be ‘claimed’ as a guarantee from God. It responsive on our part, not on God’s part and we are agreeing with the Psalmist, making the declaration about what God has done for us not what we assume he will have to do again.

Yet, it is still a powerful expression of how we can respond to God in similar circumstances. We have all mourned before God and one another and found ourselves dancing and celebrating when God moved in our lives to help us past the challenging times. We have known the joy of seeing the worst of times become the best of times. And we have felt the feeling that we could praise God now and for the rest of our lives in response.

Janus

This Psalm is wonderful example of life for each of us. We live life and things seem good. They get dark and the world seems to end. God steps in and we recover, grow, and move on to learn a new way of being. Yet, just as the Psalmist celebrates the present, the past is remembered, a past that become our present again. I was struck in writing the sermon of a vision of Janus.

For those who may not have heard of him, Janus,

“…frequently symbolized change and transitions such as the progress of past to future, from one condition to another, from one vision to another, and young people’s growth to adulthood. He represented time, because he could see into the past with one face and into the future with the other.”[5]

In the same way, I would encourage you to recognize where you have been, good and bad, consider the future and what it might bring, but most importantly, live in the moment now, experiencing God’s grace, mercy, and love as cumulative expression of his life in you.


[1] http://teachingrocks.ca/the-tuesday-12-12-great-poems-for-back-school/

[2] http://teachingrocks.ca/the-tuesday-12-12-great-poems-for-back-school/

[3] https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1260.Michel_Foucault

[4] Isaiah 38:10-22

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janus from Macrobius Saturnalia I 7, 20 and I 9, 4: Antevorta and Postvorta or Porrima are his associates deities in this function. Ovid Fasti I 133-40 states his double head means he as caelestis ianitor aulae, gatekeeper of the heavenly mansion, can watch both the eastern and western gate of heaven.

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