Have you ever woken up from a dream so good that you try to fall back to sleep hoping that your brain will pick up where it left off? It hardly ever happens because our brains and bodies get too overstimulated when we’re awake to get back to a dream-like state fast enough. Likewise, how many times have you looked at photo albums from years ago or watched a VHS home video (if you don’t know what that is, ask your parents) filled with childhood memories absent from pain and sickness and dysfunction? Why do we crave to go back to those good dreams and the nostalgia of days before heartache? I think the answer is obvious. Good dreams and memories make us feel good. And in many ways, we want those dreams and memories to be or become reality.
For the nation of Israel, there is throughout their story the sway, the back and forth, of feeling and experiencing God’s favor on one hand and feeling abandoned by God on the other. This teeter totter nature of Israel’s fortune is not necessarily the result of God being or not being present—showing or not showing favor—but, rather, Israel’s own fickle posture toward God. Woven throughout the collection we now call a book of psalms are threads and fibers of Israel’s relationship with God (or lack thereof) as well as record of their emotions and experiences from major events in their history.
Psalm 126 is what biblical theologians refer to as a song of ascent.
In this short song, or poem, Israel reminisces on the days when life was good—their fortunes were restored, they laughed, they sang, they danced, they rejoiced. Even other nations who saw them recognized the favor they experienced—for “the Lord has done great things for them,” (v. 2) they said. If you had never read this psalm before, you might have expected the next line to start with “But now…” The first three verses might just have well set it up to become a psalm of lament, of crying out to God because circumstances are less than desirable. We could expect this from a nation who often only asked God to show up when times were tough, and resources were far from abundant.
Remarkably, verses four through six are more of a prayer or plea to God to do what they know God can do and has done. Like a lament, this writer is beseeching God, but not from a place of despair like we would expect from a lament. Instead, what we read seems and feels more like a prayer of trust in God, and not just that but a prayer of supplication on behalf of those who “sow in tears” and “go out weeping,” that they, too, would taste and feel the fortunes of days past.
It is not clear what particular season or moment of history Israel was enduring that resulted in the recording of this psalm, but it is likely they were in captivity, away from their homeland where they experienced joy and laughter, where the goodness they experienced was something to be desired by others (v. 2). And now, they were the ones desiring.
In the shift between verses one through three and four through six, we have a seemingly obvious pause, if not just the physical break in spacing on the page, then, also, the space between joy and sorrow, between memories of gladness and a present season of anguish. It is brief but substantial and marked by the reflection and prayer of the psalmist.
The season of Lent is marked by the practices of reflection and prayer, of sitting in the ashes of affliction and praying for God to restore what once was. But in the waiting, in the space between memory and present reality, as well as the space between present reality and hope for a better tomorrow, there is a pregnant need for pause. For without pause—between memory, present reality, and future hope—our reflection would be too hasty and, likely, empty.
As pastors, our congregations likely look to us to guide them through seasons of difficulty, grief, and pain—though it is not us who guides them but the Spirit through us. In this season of Lent, take survey of the posture of the people you shepherd. For many of them, they are likely grieving losses from the past two years related to the pandemic and beyond that are, perhaps, heavier than losses they’ve endured before. As you continue your journey together toward the cross, ponder these questions as a reflection for yourself and for your people:
What are the memories I and these beloved children of God are mourning? Are they memories of family members lost to illness, memories of normalcy and predictability, memories of a time before anxiety and depression?
What are the feelings and emotions being felt by reflection of these memories? Sadness? Grief? Loneliness? Hope?
How can we create spaces to hold these memories together as an act of bringing them to the foot of the cross on Good Friday?
It is so tempting to hurry to Easter Sunday for that is when we celebrate the goodness and restorative reality of the God who brings light into darkness, life into death, for we are Easter people who proclaim the resurrection of Jesus! Yet, we are also Good Friday and Holy Saturday people who walk with Jesus into the night, recognizing our profound need for God’s saving grace.
On this fifth Sunday of Lent, may we not only create space to remember the joy and gladness of a time before and create space to name our hopes for better days, but may we also create space to pause and name our current situation and grieve what is lost for it is in the sowing of our tears that we will reap with shouts of joy, carrying the sheaves of the hard work of reflection.