Shall We Dance, Can We Whirl
Reflections on Psalm 30 by Michael Barrett
Psalm 30 is one of the most cherished of all of David’s songs. The Message translation read by Kathy this morning bluntly and powerfully expresses the incredible message of its author. It is one of the few psalms that express elements of both lament and thanksgiving for deliverance. Walter Brueggeman notes “the speaker is now on the other side of a lament or a complaint.” We realize that this speaker has through God survived horrendous suffering.
The psalm’s images of being lifted, healed, and spared, its images of a God whose anger is only a flash and whose love endures for a lifetime, and its images of weeping in the night followed by joy in the morning, comfort us all. It encourages us in the face of life’s difficulties, ambiguities, uncertainties, and above all, suffering.
Suffering is one of the most persistent and troubling of all the problems humans face. Perhaps most especially for believers – how do we deal with suffering as faithful followers? This morning we learn that ours is an age-old dilemma – ancient people struggle with trying to understand the meaning of suffering in their lives with the same intensity as do we. How do we cope with the reality of anguish, affliction, and adversity on a scale of such overwhelming magnitude and still – and still – maintain our faith in a creative parent God, a rescuing Brother, and a nourishing sustainer of almighty power; a God and of complete goodness and unconditional love?
Many theologians have valiantly attempted to explain the reasons, the “why,” of suffering. After all, when we are suddenly confronted with personal suffering, is not our first question, “Why Me, O God?” A few of these approaches (although I will not do complete justice to each of them] follow – But as we reflect on these approaches, let us consider their use and efficacy in discussing suffering with those in our family or those friends who are experiencing deep anguish and affliction.
Some theologians assign suffering’s responsibility to us. St. Augustine places most of the blame squarely on the shoulders of humankind. We are at fault – we broke the divine relationship, and tainted by original sin, suffering is the result of our own continued bad decisions and our own sinning. It is our misuse of the gift of free will that leads to pain and distress. A corollary approach posits that suffering is something for us to overcome. It is the responsibility of humans to reduce their suffering by acts of faith, prayer, and good deeds, all serving to glorify God. Yet, we do witness the suffering of the innocent, the blameless, and the good, while the guilty, the sinful, and the evil prosper.
Others focus more on the role of God. Irenaeus (Ear eh nay us), skirting the issue of divine responsibly, suggests that suffering while not God’s direct doing, is none the less used by God as a learning device – a soul-building tool used for the betterment of our spiritual and moral development. Suffering is designed to teach us virtues like mercy, forgiveness, and altruism.
A bleak refinement of this approach is suffering as provenance – God is in complete control and uses suffering for His own higher aims. Purposes, which we do not, cannot, and are not authorized to comprehend, so far.
This is a reverse tapestry metaphor. Today, we see only the confusing back of the tapestry, with strings and yarns hanging down, and little rhyme or reason. But, someday, God will spin the tapestry around and we will see its front. It will all make sense then. Yet, we may wonder at the severity of the capital punishment lessons administered in proportion to the spiritual lessons gained when learning requires such drastic measures.
Still, others will tell us that some suffering is so horrendous that it is too difficult to believe that human beings are evil enough to warrant that level of suffering and that God is not cruel enough to evoke that level of suffering as a tool. Cosmic evil forces instead cause all suffering. This is less “The devil made me do it” and more “The devil does it all.” Yet, honestly, sometimes, aren’t we our own worse enemies? Sometimes, don’t we actually learn from our mistakes? Does God really let evil run amok so completely unchecked?
Some of these approaches are partially satisfying, a few may actually suffice in a few selected cases, and others may serve for a time. Yet, eventually, every time we try to understand suffering in terms of its “why,” more questions surface and are left unanswered. We are likely left dissatisfied and frustrated.
God knows that even if He were to give us the complete answer to why there is suffering, we would still not be satisfied. That is why Psalm 30 so resonates. It speaks God’s answer to our real question. What we need is not the knowledge of the reasons for suffering; we need to know HOW to deal with suffering.
How in the face of suffering do we cope, continue on, and carry through – how do we endure bleak times of incredible hardship?
The psalmist survivor suggests three ways from his own experience.
- We remember things about the very nature of God,
- We keep expressing our praise for God, and
- We express our trust that God will deliver us.
In coping with adversity and hardship the psalmist encourages us first to remember the times God has helped us in the past –you got me out of the mess, you didn’t let my foes gloat, you pulled me up from the grave, you gave me another chance at life. The psalmist affirms that we can count on God.
We aren’t facing our trials and tribulations alone. God is with us. God is able to deliver us. God did it before and God will do it again. Believe it, act like it.
The second way in which the psalmist encourages us to remember God when in the throes of ordeal and torment is to bear in mind what God is really like. God gets angry once in a while, but across a lifetime there is only love. The nights of crying your eyes out will give way to days of laughter. Continue hoping. Do not give in to despair. God is at work. Trials and tribulations will end. Difficult times are not the order of the universe. They are temporary. Our God is a God of healing and helping and hopefulness. At heart, Abba is a God of unconditional love.
God has this, God has this, God has this.
Keeping the Praise Up
In continuing on through affliction and distress, the psalmist encourages us to keep praying and praising and thanking God even in times of suffering as confusing and confounding as it may seem to do so.
The psalmist knows whom to thank, whom to praise, and whom to turn to –- I called out to you, I laid my case before you. James Mays observes beautifully that this is a moment “of praise and prayer coming together for holding the experience of life in relation to God. EVEN IN THE DARKEST MOMENTS, THE PSALMIST KEEPS A RESIDUAL SENSE OF GOD’S PROVIDENCE.
The psalmist knows that as important as praising God may be to us and to our petitioned hopes, our praise is much more important to God. Karl Barth once wrote that the source of all sin, the single sin foundational to all other, is ingratitude. God appreciates our thanks.
The psalmist keeps up the praise individually – I give you all the credit, Lord.
But note, the psalmist also invites praise publically – All you saints! Sing your hearts out to God1 Thank Him to his face. In our pastoral prayer time how often do we do that? We pray most often for help and that is always appreciated and appropriate. Would it also not be just as appreciated and appropriate if we thank God publically for the type of God He is and praise Him for the blessings he brings to our lives?
The psalmist encourages us to use that appreciation that God has for our praise. Can you sell me for a profit, auction me off at a cemetery yard sale? When I am dust to dust my song and stories won’t sell. In other words, if I am destroyed, is that not one less voice to sing your glory? Would that not be one less voice to praise your goodness? One less voice to thank you?
But, real praise is not just about thankfulness. Grateful praise to God entails two more requisites, exclaims the psalmist:
- A confessional statement relying on the community and committing oneself to the community – I can’t keep quiet about you. I must tell others.
- A commitment statement –God, my God, I can’t thank you enough. I must never stop expressing gratitude.
James Mays also notes a second important factor about our praise and God. God, of course, appreciates genuine gratitude, but God also realizes that “Praise is the way that the faithfulness of the Lord [His Faithfulness] becomes Word and is heard in the Lord’s world [His World]. God is the object of praise. God is also the subject that makes praise possible. Why does God need praise? Because He desires a relationship with us. We pray to live and live to pray.
Thank you, God. Thank you, God, Thank you, God.
Trusting in God
Finally, the psalmist enheartens us as we carry on through anguish and misery, by trusting God to deliver us and counting on God for the best results.
It is in the area of reliance where our poor psalmist tells us he had gone completely astray. When things were going great, I crowed, ‘I’ve got it made. I’m God’s favorite. He made me king of the mountain.’ The psalmist feels secure and knows he will never be shaken. I GOT THIS!!!!!!!
Note the overconfidence – the lack of remembrance, the lack of praise, the lack of gratitude? I am comfortable. I am prosperous. I am powerful. I am safe and secure. I am on top of the mountain. [God probably thinks that He is king of the mountain!]I- I -I. Sure God helped me out, but I worked hard. I did most of the heavy lifting. I deserve this.
Then you looked the other way and I fell to pieces, complains the psalmist. I was dismayed. I was terrified. I was shaken! Really, though, who actually looked the other way? God did not look the other way, the psalmist did. God strongly appreciates in each of us a healthy respect for ourselves. What God does not appreciate is our self-respect getting out of hand and then becoming a license for arrogant feelings of self-glorification, self-satisfaction, or self-sufficiency, and God-less-ness.
The devastated psalmist recognizes his mistake and cries out – Help me out of this!
He gets much more than he bargains for, much more than he hopes for, much more than he imagines. Wild lament becomes a whirling dance, the black mourning band is ripped off, and he is bedecked with flowers. Sackcloth turned to joy. Tears turned to laughter.
The point has never been for us to ignore suffering or dismiss the distress and pain it causes. The psalmist never denies the existence of suffering or the difficulty of dealing with it. The point is not that if we simply pray long and hard enough then God will make everything right (in accord with our more comfortable standards and expectations).
The point is that suffering somehow fits into the pattern of our lives, but, that also woven into the pattern of our lives is the presence of a God who is near, a God who intervenes, and a God who with compassion, caring and loving can be trusted to help us deal with the suffering we endure. He will deliver us.
You did it: you changed wild lament into whirling dance.
Shall we dance? Can we whirl?
There is a contemporary hymn set to an old English folk tune that sings the idea of the Trinity’s interrelationship, in terms of their mutual, whirling dance – Creator, Savior, Sustainer – and they bid us to join in with them in their eternal dance. When we remember and when we praise and when we trust, that Trinity makes room with them in their joyful dance for such as we.
Within the dance of Trinity
Before all worlds began,
We sing the praises of the Three,
The Father, Spirit, Son,
Let voices rise and interweave,
By love and hope set free,
To shape in song this joy, this life,
The dance of trinity.