Nan Merrill’s translation of Psalm 30, trimmed and one edit:
Sing praises to the Beloved,
O you saints,
and give thanks to Love's holy Name.
Love withdraws when we close our hearts,
yet ever awaits an open door.
Through the night we may weep,
yet joy comes with the morning.
In my prosperity, I had lost sight
I found power in my wealth.
In your mercy, O Beloved, my foundations
And, in recognizing my separation
I was dismayed.
And You turned my mourning into dancing;
You set me free and
clothed me with gladness.
Now my soul may praise You and not be silent.
O my Beloved, I will be grateful to You
forever and ever.
We’ll get to the joy, but first, think about the last time you wept all night.
To weep all night, that’s a deep loss. Death of immediate family. End of a marriage. Terrible lab results.
Maybe you don’t cry much – maybe you remember staying up all night talking to your spouse: a job loss or your child getting arrested, or one of you getting a terminal diagnosis, and all night you sat up talking, wondering, “what do we do now?”
Maybe you’re on your own or you’re a private person – have you spent a night reeling from a terrible loss, writing in a journal, or walking dark streets, wondering alone, “what do I do now?”
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning, says the Psalmist. Do you think, if you can cry hard enough, you can work out all your grief in one night?
Joy comes with the morning, says the psalmist, but the sun doesn’t come up all at once, it shines first as a hint around the curve of the earth and appears to us in a pink glow and orange haze. We see the sunrise before the sun itself appears. The morning comes not with a clock’s tik or tok, but gradually.
The day is light before we can see. First gray, then yellow, then trees and houses appear. Similarly, we know hope before we can live into it. We know hope because we read it in our Psalms: You have turned my mourning into dancing, you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.
We know hope because we have suffered through all kinds of heartaches and loss, and we have healed from most of them. Knowing that hope is real helps, but until we can live in hope, it’s only as useful as the sun before it rises. A promise of joy, but we’re not feeling joy yet.
We can’t speed up the sunrise, but we can help hope become real for ourselves and one another. Just like night and day overlap in that haze of dawn, our grief and our joy overlap, when we tell the stories that break our hearts and break our hearts open. My friends whose 9-year-old daughter died of cancer many years ago tell stories about her with joy. But in the first few years after she died, talking about her was both necessary for their survival, and painful each time. Each story broke their hearts, but broke their hearts open, so they could keep the love alive, even keep her alive in their storytelling.
“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning!” Proclaims the Psalmist. “You have turned my mourning into dancing!” Look at the words in your Bible if you’re reading along, or picture them in your mind. Joy comes with the morning. You have turned my mourning into dancing. That little letter u!
There were mourning doves outside my bedroom window when I was a kid and I could never remember which kind of “morning” the mourning dove was, because its song sounds sad, but it starts singing at the beginning of the day. Our morning song is both as well. How do we get from night to day? How do we move from grief to joy? Singing a mourning song, pouring all our sadness and despair into our song, singing it in the morning and evening and in the midst of a night of weeping. And singing with the certainty that the sun is rising and will keep rising.
But these words sound trite sometimes. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” proclaims the front of your bulletin this morning. But those deep losses that merit a night filled with weeping don’t heal quickly. That pain that literally feels like it is breaking your heart apart does not vanish just because you read “do not let your hearts be troubled.”
We look to the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria for inspiration because they have suffered so much – violence and homelessness and everyone has lost family members and loved ones. And still they are singing, still they gather for worship, still they pray and work for peace and healing.
So we look to them for inspiration but we don’t live alongside each other day by day. Which means we read the powerful stories that make Messenger magazine, and we enjoy the women’s choir, but we’re not going to their funerals or sharing tents in refugee camps.
We hear the Nigerian Women’s Choir sing and watch them dance – but few of us will be with our Nigerian sisters and brothers while they weep.
You have turned my mourning into dancing, you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, proclaims the Psalmist. And as our Nigerian sisters and brothers teach us, we can mourn and dance and sing all at once. In fact if we simply dance amidst despair without tending to our grief, we’ll lose our balance. If we simply sing amidst despair without tending to our grief our songs will be off-key. You have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. We must mourn, not only dance, or our praise will be hollow and our joy clothes won’t fit right.
Think of a New Orleans funeral, big band sounds, spinning parades through the streets, raucous praise and despair all at once.
Through all the tumult and the strife of our lives, how can we keep from singing? That hymn teaches us like the Psalmist, to let tumult and strife live side-by-side in our singing. Singing a mourning song brings us from the night, through the dawn, into the full light of day.
On this Mother’s Day when I read these words “do not let your hearts be troubled” I think of the mothers in this room who are grieving children, who are in conflict with their children, who are struggling to provide a healthy home for their children. Parenting must be one of the largest troubles on our hearts!
And still, those sleepless nights with a fussy newborn, those teary nights worrying for a child’s health, those late nights waiting for a teenager to come, those middle of the night phone calls from you child – all the troubles on a parent’s heart through the night are the holiest troubles that love calls us into.
Deb, a member of the church I pastored in Minneapolis, taught me this. She’d had heaps of struggles. She was put up for adoption as a baby, her adoptive mother died when Deb was a toddler, she had incredible health problems, she went through divorce and parented on her own, and when she came out as a lesbian she lost most of her family and community.
A blood transfusion during a c-section 25 years before I knew her gave her Hepatitis C, and she was given 10 years to live. Even though she slowed down considerably, she packed a lot of living in her extra 15 years, seeing her son grow up, meeting her grandchild, time and again getting the ER staff laughing on her frequent emergency trips to the hospital, falling in love and getting married. I was blessed to be Deb’s pastor as she knew she was dying. Sure, we all know we’re dying, but Deb went on hospice and we planned her funeral with an efficiency that respected her dwindling days. She cherished music – one of the things she was most proud of was being part of a Minneapolis women’s choir. She asked them to sing My Life Flows On for her funeral, and we all wept when they did.
We wept with gratitude as we sang at her funeral because we knew that Deb’s life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentations, above the countless lamentations of her life – being abandoned over and over by people who’d promised to love her, and decades of serious illness. Through all the tumult and the strife, Deb sought out love, she never lost hope in love.
Literally and figuratively, Deb could hear the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation. Deb’s hope rings in our ears, No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock, I’m clinging, since Love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing? When Deb turned 50, 10 years after she was supposed to have died, she had a l’chiem party to celebrate life itself.
As a divorced lesbian mother living with Hepatitis, Deb was rejected by all sorts of so-called Christians. Nevertheless, she wholeheartedly trusted God’s love for her. She told me, “I’m odd because I still believe the way my parents taught me, and at church I get what I need.”
Deb’s faith is an invitation for all of us to recall the abundant love God pours on rejected slave women like Hagar, conniving brothers like Jacob, ridiculous dreamers like Joseph, women considered unclean—like the one bleeding for twelve years.
The abundant love God pours on greedy guys like Zacchaeus, deniers and sinkers like Peter, the scolded ones—like the woman pouring a year’s wages worth of oil on Jesus feet and drying them with her hair.
The abundant love God pours on people like Deb, living with loss and illness her whole life long. Deb decided to sing a different song with her life than her own mother had, than so many struggling people can.
Deb found God’s love in tragedies, she said, “Because we’re forced to remember we’re not in control.” And Deb’s many struggles gave her this wisdom because she never had the chance to pretend she was in control in the first place. As Deb realized her 15 bonus years were coming to a close, and signed on to hospice, and spent her days and nights in a hospital bed in the living room with her wife Gretchen sleeping on the couch at her side, Deb told me, “We don’t get all that we want, but we get just what we need.”
What though the tempest 'round me roars, I hear the truth, it liveth. What though the darkness 'round me close, songs in the night He giveth. In her final weeks on earth, Deb said, “This isn’t a great loss, this is a great achievement for me. Death is a new journey: the end of this old body, old thinking, I’m onward and upward!” Deb’s mourning song can get anyone dancing.
The Nigerian church has been singing, mourning and dancing all at once with that same wisdom Deb has.
After one of Boko Haram’s murderous rampages, Nigerian pastor’s wives had a gathering and one woman said “Because of the disastrous times we’ve been through, I didn’t know if some of these friends were still alive or not until we met again here. And that makes this reunion a particularly joyful one!” She could’ve walked into that gathering with despair and anxiety, wondering who had died. Instead she found joy in each woman she saw.
We don’t dance and sing just to feel joy for the sake of joy. When the hurt and loss keep coming, like in Nigeria, we would be foolish to simply sing and dance our way to joy without seeking change – trauma recovery, rebuilding efforts, peacemaking initiatives. Our dancing and singing are not just for our personal healing, but to fuel wider change. “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” said the wise Emma Goldman, who knew that joy is essential in healing and liberating ourselves and one another.
When we weep all night, as we sing a mourning song through the dawn, and when we dance in the joy of a sunny morning, we bring the Kingdom of God to reign. Our own healing is built with the same acts of courage, creativity and compassion that heal our communities, that heal our sisters and brothers far away, that heal our planet. Living into grief, leaning into joy, joining in song.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled” sounds too simple, it doesn’t honor the real pain and struggle of our lives, I thought as I sat with these scriptures preparing for today. The phrase made me think of Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t worry, be happy.” And then I smiled. Really – can you hear that song without smiling?! I can’t. Now I’m not suggesting that in the midst of trauma or horror we could put “Don’t worry, be happy” on and all start dancing. But in the day to day frustrations and aches that we all carry we can certainly find our way to joy – while Bobby sings “Don’t worry” or when we come upon that patch of Lady Slippers along the roadside or when we sit down with that steaming mug of tea and a good book. Whatever brings real joy and healing to you.
Singing and dancing and happy moments won’t end world hunger or create world peace. But singing and dancing and joy heal us, and it is our own healing and joy that empower us to heal this world.