You are walking down a dusty road when you see ahead of you a puff in the distance. As you get closer, you realize that the puff is actually a group of people, dirt stirred up by their walking. You seem to sense that they mean you no harm as they get closer and you can start to make out figures. Before long, you strain your ears to hear what sounds like singing. Immediately you know that they are a group of pilgrims making their way toward the Temple in Jerusalem. As they come closer and the group is upon you, you see faces. Families. Friends. Old men taking what might be their last trip. Young children perched up on the shoulders of their parents. The walking was hard, and by late afternoon, there was a definite stench that rose up among the people. It was hard, but there were smiles on every face! As they walked, they laughed, they told the children what Jerusalem would look like, and they sang. Boy, did they sing!
The book of Psalms records the songs that they sang along the way. Psalms 120-134 is collectively called the Psalms of Ascents. In other words, the pilgrim songs, the travel songs that were sung as the people of God ascended up toward the high point of Jerusalem. They were ascending physically, as well as spiritually, on their way to a feast celebration, where they would sing and shout and praise God and revel in the community of faith. Some of our favorite lines from the Psalms come from this book of ascents. Imagine as you hear these words pilgrims walking through the hard roads, singing these songs to each other! What joy must have been on their faces. What hope! What happiness!
“I lift up my eyes to the hills…my help comes from the Lord.”
“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”
“If it had not been for the Lord who was on our side….”
“Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion…”
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
Wait, what? How is this a happy song of worship and celebration? How did this song of lament in Psalm 130 make it into the list of pilgrim songs of ascent? “Out of the depths?” That’s a sad song.
I went looking online for a good sad song to compare it to…and found 50! The website Paste has released a list of the 50 Saddest Songs of all Time. Here’s a sampling:
- Tears in Heaven (Eric Clapton)
- Last Kiss (Wayne Cochran, J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers, Pearl Jam)
- When She Loved Me (Sarah McLachlan)
- Sadako Folding Cranes (Laura Viers)
- Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin)
- He Stopped Loving Her Today (George Jones)
- I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams, Sr.)
- Casimir Pulaski Day (Sufjan Stevens)
That is what Psalm 130 is like…singing one of those songs in the middle of a celebratory pilgrimage. It would be like showing up to a surprise birthday party, but instead of singing “Happy Birthday!” everyone sang Tears in Heaven together.
But there is a reason why Psalm 130 is in there…because it fits. The Psalms are perhaps the greatest collection of songs that describe the full reality of emotions, including the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. And the reason that we know these songs and sing these songs is that we understand that grief and loss are a part of life.
I lost the last three of my living grandparents within an 18-month span. I never knew my father’s father, but his mother, and both of my mother’s parents died around the same time. And I had a visceral experience of a generation gone. The grief was about each of them as persons, but also about the experiences that we had visiting them, and the family that would struggle to come together without the grandparents to host, and the house and the yard and the town where we visited them were gone. The Dairy Queen. I grieved the Dairy Queen. If you know anything about small town Midwestern life 30 years ago, the Dairy Queen was it. Granddaddy would load all the grandkids in the back of the pickup and drive us over to Dairy Queen, with Mammaw yelling out the window the whole time to sit down. We would order Nerds Blizzards or Peanut Buster Parfaits and sit shivering in the corner booth while we ate it. It felt like their death meant the death of a generation. The death of my childhood.
Grief is like that. Whenever we lose anything or anyone that matters to us, we grieve. And it is complicated and multi-layered like that. How many of us know that pain? I remarked in the staff meeting last week that it feels like we are in this extended period of grieving as a congregation. Of church members losing jobs or losing marriages or losing beloved family members, siblings, family members, beloved pets. We grieve when someone we love moves away, and the Robinsons and the Lambies a couple of weeks ago, and JoAn Wilson last week…hurts! And, of course, perhaps the greatest grief is caused when someone we love dies. Within our own congregation, within the last 12 months, listen to the list of folks we’ve lost:
Ruth Ramseyer. Beth Mathis. Kirk Heinz. Wanda Chauvin. George Templeton. Jack Leipzig. Ashton Thompson. David Given. Hazel Nitcher. Lee Wright. Clark Havenor. Marj King.
One a month. Folks who are near and dear to us. It hurts. And the Psalmist gets it. “Out of the depths I cry to you. O Lord, hear my voice.” The song doesn’t say to fix it to take it away or bring them back. But just hear me. How often in our grief do we just want someone to listen?
And Someone does listen. Look at what the Psalmist does next. She or he moves into a theological treatise about the nature of God:
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.
Throughout the Psalm, we find that the author has something to say about God. That even in the midst of the pain and the grief and the brokenness of this world, there is a God who is about forgiveness, about redemption, about Hesed, (loving kindness, grace, steadfast love). This is who God is in the middle of the pain and the agony of our lives. The Psalmist wants to make sure that we understand who God is in the middle of our pain. God is a God of restoration of the brokenness. God is a God of steadfast love when our hearts are broken. God is a God of forgiveness in the middle of a fallen world that is broken by sin.
God is indeed listening, and is about the work of restoration in our lives. This good and holy and perfect God might seem out of reach, but God is nearer than we know. The psalmist gives theological answer to an emotional problem. The seminarian stands up to teach, to lecture about who God is. The problem of pain. When bad things happen to good people. We understand here that God is still good. That God is a God of forgiveness, of redemption, of love.
But then, the psalmist moves deeper than theology and intellect:
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
The theological treatise of knowing God seeps into my bones. Becomes a part of who I am. I know, which means that I believe. I understand, which means that I experience. Story of one who is grieving finding a new hope…of their soul waiting on God.
The Hebrew is written in a way that when this song was sung, it would have felt like the refrain itself is waiting…waiting…waiting. As the pilgrims turned in their song to these lyrics, as they walked together, remembering their pain, they would sing…waiting…waiting…waiting.
“more than those who watch for the morning.” The image is that of a watchman on a tower. Every night, he stands on the tower, eyes peeled for an enemy to come over the hills and attack. Every night, he prays that he and the city would survive the darkness. Every night, his eyes are yearning, searching, waiting for the dawn to come from the East and grant a reprieve: the enemy would not come this night. In his darkness, in his depths, in his fear…he waits. Hoping for light to come. Watching the stars blink out one, two, ten at a time. And then the dawn coming forth, stronger and stronger and stronger, and exploding into sight with the sun above the hills. More than those who watch for the morning, my soul waits for the Lord.
The Psalmist tells us that in our depths. In our pain, in our grief, in our loss…we wait. We keep our eyes peeled for sign of hope, that the God of forgiveness and steadfast love and redemption is coming, just like the dawn. We wait, knowing that the dawn will come. We wait, trusting that its rays will bring us redemption and hope.
Paul Tillich has an amazing sermon that reminds me of this Psalm. I wish could read you the whole thing, but I allow only a few lines…
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness…. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted.”
That is what the Psalmist sings: out of the depths we cry. Into the depths comes a voice: you are accepted. You are loved. You are restored.
O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.
So today, the word of the Psalmist is for us as well. For us, on our journeys, on our pilgrimages, into our depths, comes a shard of light.
After my third and final grandparent died, a shard of light pierced the darkness of that grief. After they died, we all loaded up in the cars – we didn’t fit in the back of the pickup truck anymore – and we drove to Dairy Queen. There, the familiar smells of ice cream and candy took me back. I looked around at the family – now filling much more than the corner booth, and saw a new generation of memories born. There was still grief, and still pain, but there was also hope. Grace. Forgiveness. Redemption. God had reached down into the depths and brought a new day. A new dawn.
Sometimes, when I run, I leave before sunrise. And when I do, I often try and schedule my run so that at the moment that the sun rises, I will be someplace awesome. Sunrise just as a crest the hill of Sanders’ Mound by the lake. Sunrise over the campus of KU from Daisy Hill or the Campanile. Sunrise from the heights of Paramiske Hill up off of Princeton Road. I plan it. I imagine it. It almost never happens. I am always slower or faster than I think, and inevitably, I end up seeing the sun rise from some directed I didn’t expect, while I am on some unknown, nondescript gravel road. Nothing to write home about.
But isn’t that so often the way that light comes? Not in our timing, but in unexpected times and ways. In the midst of the valley of the shadow of death when we feel like the sun will never shine again, God shows us the light. In the midst of the depths of our pain and agony, when we barely have the energy or motivation to lift our heads, God shows us the light. In unexpected ways and times and from unexpected places, God shows us the light. We wait and wait and wait and think that nothing is going to happen, that the light will never rise, that we will be engulfed in darkness forever, and then it explodes from beyond our imagining. That is how God shows us the light!
Today, I pray for you to know that new dawn, in the middle of your depths. I pray that you might know God’s voice of acceptance and redemption. Of grace and love. I pray that you might know that you are not alone in your depths, but that God shines a light from above. And I pray that you might experience the unexpected joy of a word or a smile or a song or a Peanut Buster Parfait, that proclaims the Presence and love of the Eternal. May your face be lightened by the sunrise of grace, and may you know the love of your Creator!