Hope for 2021?

Here we are: the final Sunday of what has been, on a national and global scale, one of most trying years in recent memory. In America alone, COVID has claimed over a quarter of a million lives; some have estimated that this ghastly number might double before we’re done. But the indirect impact of the disease is even more widespread. The uncertainty, anxiety, and wrangling over the relationship between public health and private conduct have widened divisions that already existed. Divisions of race. Of class. Of politics.

What can we expect in 2021? Is there hope?

Of course. There is always hope, because there is a God. And his name is not Pfizer.

. . .

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that our two-year tour through the book of Acts has come to an end. It seems appropriate, in such troubled times, that we turn next to the Psalms, in an ongoing set of meditations I will call “Inhabiting the Psalms.”

The psalmists themselves might have appreciated such a title. After all, they frequently referred to God as a safe, secure place to dwell or hide, and I want to suggest that the Psalms themselves can also be a spiritual home. The Psalter is a place to let our imaginations roam: to see what the psalmist sees, portrayed through poetic imagery; to hear the psalmist’s songs of praise and lament, and to join in the community of worship.

The psalms teach us what it means to hope, even when one seems to be at death’s door:

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

Ps 30:1-3, NRSV

The NRSV entitles the psalm, “Thanksgiving for Recovery from Grave Illness,” though we don’t really know what the psalmist may have suffered (a wild guess? It wasn’t COVID). The language, however, suggests that the poet felt him- or herself slipping away, sliding down into Sheol, the shadowy place of the dead. But God drew the psalmist up, as one might draw a bucket from a deep well. Rescued and returned to the land of the living, the psalmist rejoices, and calls to others to join in a song of praise (vs. 4).

So great is the poet’s gratitude that he or she never wants the party to end. The psalm ends on this joyous note:

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Ps 30:11-12, NRSV

So…who among us has had their mourning turned into dancing recently? Show of hands?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. It’s not a large club this year.

As we’ll see, the psalmist’s moral vision of the world often seems simplistic. The good guys are supposed to win and the bad guys are supposed to lose, not merely in some distant future, but in this life and in that battle. Taken to extremes, this way of thinking leads to the worst offenses committed in the name of the prosperity gospel, with its message that people who suffer must be failing at faithfulness.

Is that what the psalmist means? Is that the nature of his hope? Just follow my lead, people. Pray as hard as I pray, dance as hard as I dance, and everything will be just fine.

I don’t think so.

In reading Scripture, it’s important — though often complicated! — to hold the whole of the witness together, in all its diversity. Similarly, with the Psalms, we need to hold the Psalter together, with its complex vision of praise and lament, joy and despair, justice and injustice. We can’t lift out the parts we like and leave the rest. The Psalms, taken together, paint a more nuanced picture of the world and of the poet’s relationship to God than can be had through any one psalm, let alone a handful of verses.

We are invited to enter into the psalmist’s story, a frequently honest and searching portrait of the life of faith, conveyed through song and verse. Approached that way, as we will see in the next post, there may be more to learn about hope from Psalm 30 than first meets the eye.