Monday, December 12, 2011

A Psalm for When You Are Down in the Dumps

This morning we recited the 126th Psalm. It is a very helpful reading when you or a friend is down in the dumps. It looks backward to a time when things were really bad, remembers what God did to make things better, and then, in an act of hope and faith, asserts (to use a contemporary expression) this too shall pass.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.

Once again we read a psalm based in and around the Babylonian exile. “Restored” – past tense – places its composition sometime after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem. The dreaming it refers to is not like what we experience when we sleep nor is it the idleness of day-dreaming - like imagining what you would do if you won the lottery. This dreaming is rooted in reality and possibility.

Several years ago a friend gave me a $50 bill as a birthday present; not a check, which I would have had to process through the bank, and not a gift card, but cold, hard cash. It did not have to be factored in to the monthly budget, nor was it subject to the I.R.S. The gift came with one and only one stipulation: I was to use to buy something for me. The real blessing of that unexpected present was that it allowed me to dream. I considered several possibilities, none of which would have been guilt-free had I charged it or written a check.

Each of us has experienced the connection between restored fortunes and this kind of dreaming. We know it when we have recovered from illness or injury. We know it when we finally find a job after months of unemployment. We know it when the last final has been taken and the final paper has been turned in. We have all had many experiences like this: some minor, others major, and a few life-changing.

My birthday present fits in to the minor category, but it was still a blessing. Any guesses what bought with it? Several high-end cigars and I really did enjoy them, like the next verse of the psalm says,

Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

Laughter… Did you know that children laugh more than adults? Before they can even speak, babies laugh on average 300 times a day, while the typical adult laughs around 20 times. Laughter is universal and while there are thousands of different languages and dialects spoken around the world, we all laugh pretty much the same way. Even children born deaf and blind retain the ability to laugh.

We do it to express joy, at humor, when tickled, and to cope with adversity. It is good for our body and our health because it releases endorphins in the brain and lowers blood pressure. Other primates laugh, especially when tickled. Dogs laugh too. They do it with a different cadence in their panting, which when recorded and played in an animal shelter promotes calmness, play, and pro-social behavior among kenneled dogs.

Shouts of joy… I suspect that watching sports is when most people today shout for joy with the most reckless abandon. This fall, before the final play in the Miami vs. Virginia Tech game (a game which was very tense, very close, and very dramatic), Hokie fans were in a state of joyous, raucous hysteria that reached a crescendo as they sensed improbably victory was within reach. The TV announcer said, “I have never seen a setting like this. These fans are losing their minds.”

We shout for joy when a couple is pronounced husband and wife, at a baby’s birth, and at graduation ceremonies. Etched in our national consciousness are images of people pouring into Times Square on VE and VJ days; kissing and hugging complete strangers and shouting at the tops of their lungs. These moments of relief and celebration invite reflection:

The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.

Up to this point, everything in the psalm is a memory of the traumatic event of the exile and its blessed ending. With that recollection firmly rooted at the heart of faith, it turns its focuses to the present; to what it is like being down in the dumps:

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.

Even those with a minimal knowledge of the region’s weather and landscape understand the meaning of this prayer. We know what it is like to be down on our luck, under attack, and hanging on by a thread. We know what it is like to be spiritually dry, personally isolated, and bound tight by shackles others have made for us or by chains of our own making. And we know what it is to long for deliverance, refreshment, and relief.

We begin each Sunday in the four-week season of Advent singing verses from the hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” Like the psalms we have been reading, it is a hymn cast in the experience of exile:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

To be alive is to know periods of exile, of dryness, of being down in the dumps, but it is also to know the laughter and joy of being restored. I suspect that as we grow older the dumps get a little easier to manage because we have a built many memories of being restored. When we are younger, even the slightest time in the thinnest of dumps is filled with drama. With benefit of age and experience we come to expect that the dumps will pass.

The psalmist expresses this faith derived from experience so beautifully:

Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.

Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy,
shouldering their sheaves.

Tears… There are different kinds of tears. We cry for joy, when something gets in our eyes, and when we are profoundly sad. Each of these experiences produces a different kind of reaction in the body so the chemical composition of one kind of tear is different from other kinds of tears. Infants cry in three distinct ways. There is a basic cry, usually indicating hunger, there is an angry cry, and there is a cry of pain. Every parent knows the difference. There seems to be a link between crying and the experience of perceived helplessness. That sense of helplessness may come from receiving unexpected good news or it may come from being in a situation where we are powerless to affect its outcome.

The psalmist is describing tears of sadness; tears of mourning. Often times these tears are shed only in our hearts and the secrete recesses of our soul. It is not uncommon for these tears to go undetected by others and even for us not to recognize that we ourselves are crying. Sadness and grieving have a way of numbing us to our own reality and experience.

To my eye, the psalmist demonstrates his or her maturity by using the metaphor of planting to describe this difficult and challenging experience. In an agricultural society, the planting season was a lean time. Yes, the winter was past, but it was still way too early for any new crops to appear. Of the little grain that was left to eat, much had to be sowed back into the fields. This was a time of hunger, want, and uncertainty. And then came the waiting, waiting, waiting, and waiting for that new grain to mature; signaling restoration and triggering shouts of joy.

It is a wonderful image for when we are down in the dumps because it suggests that even though there are many things beyond our control, there are some things we can do to help restore our fortunes. What are one or two or three things I can do to get myself going again? Figuring that out somehow always factors in to the miracle of the restoration which comes from beyond our efforts. What “sowing” is for you depends on who you are, what you need, and why you are down in the dumps.

Let me suggest one thing suggested by the psalm that is universal. The 126th Psalm is part of thirteen grouped together because they were said or sung by pilgrims on their way toward Jerusalem. They are known as the “Psalms of the Ascent” because Jerusalem is built on high ground. These works supported the travelers in their physical journey to the Temple, but also in their spiritual journey through life. As such, its place in the canon of scripture suggests that one seed we should sow especially when we are down in the dumps is a seed which is spiritual, which connects us to God.

“The Lord is my help,” one psalm proclaims, “my light” says another, “my salvation.” Worship, prayer, acts of devotion and charity, talking with a priest or spiritual friend, intentionally seeking beauty and solitude, focusing in on the basics of life – each of these has a profound way of opening us to God’s presence. And being attune to God’s presence has a way of buoying us through the time of waiting until one day we find ourselves bringing in the sheaves.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.