Text: Psalm 20: 1-5, 11-12
Some things about church-good and bad-stick with us for life. One that has existed in the “bad” category for me is a little song that my third grade Sunday school teacher, Ms. Price, would sing to us each Sunday morning as we began our circle time. It went like this:
The joy of the Lord, is my strength;
the joy of the Lord, is my strength;
the joy of the Lord, is my strength;
the joy of the Lord, is my strength.
Aside from its lack of creativity, I didn’t like that song. First, I found it incredibly difficult to sing-I still do. Second, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. So, most Sundays I was not inclined to sing along, which on occasion landed me in trouble. (Even back then, without knowing it, I was preparing to become a good Pullenite!) But as much as I disliked that song, I cannot say the same about Ms. Price. I loved Ms. Price. In addition to being my third grade Sunday school teacher, she had also been my kindergarten teacher (and for that matter, my first and second grade Sunday school teacher). Her hands could be as gentle as they were firm. At kindergarten nap time she could sing us to sleep with a soft lullaby; and at recess she could command the troops with a single word sharply spoken. But back to Sunday mornings! If I close my eyes tight, I can still see myself and my classmates sitting cross-legged on the floor in a semi-circle and I can hear Ms. Price singing that little ditty-the joy of the Lord, is my strength. Some mornings, especially those when it seemed like she would never get our attention, I swear I could see her teeth clinched through her smile as she began that opening song. Even then, there was a disconnect between the look on her face and the words coming from her mouth. And now, some thirty-five years later, I wonder who she was trying to convince with that little song-herself or her students.
In a world with so much pain, suffering, and weeping, speaking of joy can feel insensitive and even irresponsible. In our hearts and minds, we wonder, “What right do I have to speak or sing of joy when more than half of the people who live in this world go to bed sick and hungry or to the sounds of bombs and bullets?” For many of us, when life is going along okay, when there is no world crisis or personal crisis bearing down on us, the most responsible feeling we can muster is to acknowledge a sense of contentment or happiness. But joy, that anchor which the Psalmist describes as our strength in life, remains (for many of us) just a theory or an elusive feeling. To make this point, how often, when someone asks you how you are feeling do you respond by saying, “I feel joyful?” At best, I wonder if we have convinced ourselves that we don’t deserve to feel joy. And at worst, I wonder if we have forgotten that feeling joyful-a real deep down soulful joy-is one of the things that God wishes most for us. If it is true that joy is what God longs for us to experience in life, then the journey from weeping to rejoicing; from mourning to dancing; from despair to hope is one of the most important journeys that we, as people of faith, can make. But how do we begin this journey? What essentials will we need in our packs as we start out on the path toward joy?
At least twice in my life I have experienced the journey of my mourning being turned into dancing; and my weeping turned into joy. And in both instances, you, the Pullen community, walked that path with me. In early spring of 1998, Vickie and I received our adoption referral to adopt a six month old little girl from Russia. From the first grainy picture we saw of little Sasha, we fell in love. We were told that I could expect to travel to Russia in early fall to get our beautiful little girl. The excitement in our family was palpable. We had waited for over two years for me to make this journey. Early fall came with word that my paperwork was almost finished and that I would be traveling to Vladivostok, Russia, in October. As October arrived, word came again that the paperwork was not quite ready and that it would be November before I traveled. November passed and December arrived and I still had no travel date. Then late one December evening the phone rang and it was our adoption agency. They were calling to inform us that there was a problem with the adoption and that we would need to wait for another referral. As you can imagine, our hearts were crushed. For the next days, our tears were our food day and night. We were among those that the Psalmist describes as having gone down to the Pit. And while that may seem overstated to you, for me and Vickie it felt that devastating. January came and with determination we called our agency and told them that we would not consider another referral and that we would wait until they told us that there was absolutely no way we could adopt the little girl named Sasha that we had grown to love in our hearts. In February of 1999 we received another call informing us that our paperwork was back on track and that I would travel in March to get Sasha. Finally, on May 15, 1999, I boarded a plane at RDU International airport bound for Vladivostok, Russia. And on June 1, Sasha (or as you know her, Nora) and I landed back at RDU International airport to a joy-filled homecoming. The journey had taken us from the depths of despair to one of the deepest places of joy that I have ever felt. On June 1, 1999, I understood what the Psalmists meant when she wrote: “You have turned my mourning into dancing…”
The second story that I share with you is a bit fresher so I will tell it with a bit more brevity. In the spring of 2002, you called me to serve as your pastor alongside Jack McKinney. It was not an easy process (Are there any easy processes at Pullen?) and again there were times throughout the conversation when it felt like I had gone down to Sheol. In the days and months after you voted to call me as one of your pastors, I became depressed. Fear set in. The doubts-some yours and some mine-of whether I could measure up became overwhelming. Weeping lingered night and day. I waited for the joy to come in the morning, but it did not come. Not at first and not all at once. But bit by bit, over these last six years, as we have shared this journey of pastor and congregation, I, like the Psalmist, have been drawn up, healing has taken place, and life is being restored. And while there are still nights of weeping, joy seems to always come with the morning.
I share these stories with you to give a face to the Psalmist’s words of hope and joy that can so often feel out of our reach. I offer them to you not as a platitude to those who are currently in pain, but rather as my witness to the hope of God’s presence and redemption even in our darkest moments. The natural tension created in Psalm 30 allows for praise to be set within a context that recognizes the depth of suffering and the pinnacles of joy. It celebrates the new awareness and gratitude that can come from suffering, without idealizing pain. The Psalmist never suggests that to feel and experience joy we must isolate ourselves from our pain and suffering and that of the world. The message of the Psalmist is just the opposite: it is in our weeping and in our pain that God draws us up, heals us, and restores us to a life of joy and gratitude. Through that journey, our mourning is turned into dancing and we discover that God’s joy-not our happiness or our contentment-is our strength.
How do we begin this journey toward joy? In the Psalmist’s words, we begin by trusting in God’s steadfast love for us and by being able to see beyond our moment of darkness into the bright light of God’s hope. What essentials will we need in our packs as we travel the path toward joy? A community-a community that will hold the light before us when we cannot hold it for ourselves; and a spirit-a spirit that is willing to look at our pain and suffering and the world’s pain and suffering and believe that what you do and what I do and that what we do together makes a difference in how God’s love and grace and peace is known in this world. Dare we have the courage to allow God to turn our mourning into dancing? More importantly, dare we have the courage to speak of our joy in a world full of pain and suffering? I hope so, for I wonder how else our world will be lifted up, healed, and restored to life!
Some things about church-good and bad-stick with us for life. One, that over time, I have placed in the “good” category is a little song I learned in Sunday school in the third grade.