This Psalm of the week that we just shared ends with a prayer. So the people plead to God: “Restore our fortunes like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. [O LORD,] those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy carrying their sheaves” (Psalm 126:4-6).
“See when the LORD brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy. [You know] it was said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’ The LORD has done great things for us. And we rejoiced” (Psalm 126:1-3). Restore us O LORD, so we could rejoice one day. So we could be like those who dream.
Only thing is, which comes first: the LORD restoring us or our rejoicing? If you’re having trouble tracking the sequence of events in this song, then you’re hearing it right. Part of the song is pleading for help. “God, we are in exile and we want to go home!” Part of the song is the people asking each other, “Hey, do you remember when God brought us home?” But there’s no telling where the singers are in the timeline.
Are they in trouble now, asking the LORD to come to the rescue by praising God in advance because they’re dreaming of the day? Or are they praising God because they’ve already come home, now they’re looking back remembering how they used to cry for help? There’s no way to tell!
In this song, remembering the past and imagining the future spill into each other: Remember when we were like those who dream. I mean, who dreams anymore? Can you even imagine what it’s like to dream…
In this song, the people are praising God, and the people are pleading for help, and it’s almost like one side is answering the other. You can hear the back-and-forthness of the poetry. It was said, “The LORD has done great things for them” sings one side. “Yes, the LORD has done great things for us” answers the other.
Now in all of this, we hear the circular sense of time —looking forward invokes the past, while looking back heralds the future. We hear the built in call-and-response of this Psalm. We can hear these dynamics. But there are a few things we don’t hear.
For one thing, this is not a lament Psalm. There are lament Psalms out there, and this isn’t one. In Psalm Forty-Two the Psalmist sings, “My tears have been my food day and night while people keep asking me, ‘Where is your God?’” Psalm Twenty-Two begins: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” The people who composed the Psalms were not afraid to step into the deepest pain and yell at the LORD. God better take notice and do something!
Psalm One Twenty-Six is not a lament song. It is also not a song of untroubled celebration, and there are Psalms of untroubled celebration out there. “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD all the earth” is the cry of Psalm One Hundred. “Sing to God, sing praises to God; tell of all these wonderful works.” Even the sea monsters get called on to Praise the LORD! in some of the Psalms. But not this one.
Today’s Psalm rises up in between lament and praise. It is the song of turning. Imagining turns into remembering; weeping turns into shouts of joy, and this promise of turning is what the people were singing.
The LORD creates the world by singing to summon the light in the dark, then the earth answers back singing glory to God, so the sky sings to the Holy Spirit, and the sea sings to the sky, until you can’t even tell who started the praise and who’s giving it back, until we can’t even help but join in.
These are the days leading up to Christmas. You might feel a kind of contagious cheer in the air. There might be a little more kindness than usual; there might be more music. These are the days of shimmering luminaries and peppermint cocoa, all the glittering fa-la-la-la-las prodding us to get into the holiday spirit. This really can be lovely. This really can be the most wonderful time of the year.
And this really can be hard to hear if you find yourself grieving. During the holidays, it could seem like everyone around you is happy. (They’re really not, I promise, but it can seem that way.) It could feel like if you are mourning or dealing with depression, then you are doing Christmas wrong. Might as well stay home. Might as well not give anyone else my cold germs or get my despair all over their holiday cheer.
I really get this impulse. Something I’ve come to learn is that feeling sorrow at Christmas does not make you the Grinch. Taking your finger and tracing it around the sharp edge of the pain you carry in your body, this does not make you Ebenezer Scrooge. Feeling sad makes you human, and here unto us the Holy One becomes human. Holy are the tears of the Christ child. Holy are the tears.
The hope of Christmas is what Mary pronounces in her song that Sylvia just read. This hope is not reserved for those who are happy. Mary’s song of joy is not just for the people who have already found it; she’s singing for all of us who need this joy. It’s for the hungry and the poor, the left-out and the forgotten, the ones who are too little, and too old, too alone, and in too much pain.
Like the Psalm, Mary’s Magnificat invokes God’s work of turning so power gets turned upside down. Cries for help turn into songs of praise. This means, if you happen to be missing out on the joy of the season, you might be standing in exactly the right spot to help us herald the turning. Missing joy can make room for joy, but I don’t know how anybody could see this by staying home alone.
A year ago last fall, Jean Doden spoke to Herb’s sister to collect a few of her favorite memories of Church of Peace. Jean writes this: “[It was] Christmas Eve of nineteen forty-four. So many young members of the church were in the service, and the War was not going well. Our Herb was in heavy combat in the Battle of the Bulge and Reverend Rolf and Martha’s son was killed early in the War during a naval battle in the Pacific. [This] was a very somber [Christmas Eve] service where strong men were openly sobbing,” and Jean writes, “Men were never supposed to cry or show emotion. That night our church was the source of comfort and faith was our support.” Holy are the tears.
The church has something to give the world that you just can’t find anywhere. And it’s this: We know what to do with grief. We know how to hold it, how to handle it, and how to hear it.
For one thing, we know how to do the practical things. As sure as we can sing the doxology, we are a people who know how to go sit down next to someone who is crying. We know how to put out the indigo tablecloths, and serve the cheesy potatoes, and make the coffee just as sure as we know how to break the bread and pour out the cup. This is what we do.
Let the grieving people understand, you don’t have to stay home. The church can handle your deepest pain; the church can hold you. We know how to make room for sorrow. Even at Christmas. And alongside the practical things like writing cards or making casseroles, we know how to do something else. It’s this: We are a people who can listen to sorrow, then sing back to it.
Sometimes we do this literally like when we invoke the Twenty-Third Psalm at a funeral or when we sing, “He walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.” But it’s more than this too.
Giving back the song means listening to someone’s pain so carefully that you begin to harmonize with it.
It’s seeing that you have gotten someone else’s tears on your own fingers. And holy are the tears.
It’s hearing your own song rise up, first in solidarity with their sorrow, but then something in your song starts to turn.
Hearing a person’s deepest hurt, really hearing it, then letting your own soul sing back to it, this exchange is what makes room for the turning. Now your pain is welcome here of course, but you should know, it might not always stay pain. We will wrap our singing around all who mourn, and they will help us remember what it is to dream. So you can’t even tell who is pleading for help and who is praising God, you can’t even tell which comes first. There is a turning in the song.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seeds for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
Our song turned into “Praise the LORD!” and we rejoiced. And oh how we will rejoice one day! Hallelujah. Amen.