When I was a teen and young adult, I went through reading “phases.” There was my detective fiction phase, in which I read the Mike Hammer novels by Mickey Spillane, subscribed to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and even tried (unsuccessfully) to publish a detective story or two. Then there was my science-fiction and fantasy phase. I read books by Asimov, Clarke, and Niven, and joined the Science Fiction Book Club. I devoured Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and read all of Lewis’ Narnia books in a week.
Once I hit graduate school, however, I pretty much stopped reading fiction. I read mostly psychology and theology now. At best, I’ve read maybe twenty novels in the last forty years, from Dostoevsky to The Princess Bride. (I’m nothing if not eclectic.)
But in recent years, I’ve discovered a new genre: the personal memoir. I would download audiobooks to my iPhone and listen to them on my long commute. In that way, I would “read” roughly twelve to fifteen memoirs a year. I felt both humbled and enlightened listening to people speak so honestly of their struggles through mental illness, tragedy, and trauma, finding courage and tenacity, humor and hope along the way.
Their lives, literally, were an open book.
COVID has eliminated my commute, so I now have a backlog of audiobooks waiting for me on my phone. But in the meantime, I’ve discovered another group of memoirists whose work I admire, whose writings hold a lifetime of learning.
We know them as psalmists.
. . .
Not every psalm is autobiographical, but many are. None of them have the rich narrative detail and dedicated navel-gazing we expect of modern memoirs, of course; this is, after all, poetry and not prose. But every so often the psalmists lay their lives bare, as if inviting the reader and the worshiping community to learn from their example, to identify with and enter into their stories.
Psalm 30 is just such a psalm. We’ve seen in the previous post how the psalmist praised God for pulling him/her back from the brink of death. The faithful are thus encouraged to join the psalmist in songs of praise: “Weeping may stay all night, but by morning, joy!” (5b, CEB). The psalmist then turns directly to God as the poem concludes: “You changed my mourning into dancing. You took off my funeral clothes and dressed me up in joy so that my whole being might sing praises to you and never stop. LORD, my God, I will give thanks to you forever” (11-12).
But in between these joyous verses, we’re treated to a bit of autobiography:
When I was comfortable, I said,
“I will never stumble.”
Because it pleased you, Lord,
you made me a strong mountain.
But then you hid your presence.
I was terrified.
I cried out to you, Lord.
I begged my Lord for mercy:
“What is to be gained by my spilled blood,
by my going down into the pit?
Does dust thank you?
Does it proclaim your faithfulness?
Lord, listen and have mercy on me!
Lord, be my helper!” (Ps 30:6-10)
The psalmist admits having taken God’s blessing and presence for granted. Here, the declaration “I will never stumble” seems to come less from faith than arrogance or presumption. That mountain of security and confidence therefore crumbled when it seemed that God had withdrawn his presence. What followed was a bit of shameless begging and bargaining: Listen, God — you want people to praise you, to give thanks to you, to proclaim your faithfulness, right? I can’t do that if I’m dead! So please, please, please listen to me! Save me! Then, and only then, do we get the joyous dancing and nonstop praise of verses 11 and 12.
We can think of this as an entire memoir reduced to its poetic essence, a narrative plot in outline:
- Chapter 1: God graciously granted me his favor;
- Chapter 2: I took it for granted and became arrogant;
- Chapter 3: Trouble came and I was stricken with terror;
- Chapter 4: I cried out to and bargained with God;
- Chapter 5: He rescued me, and I rejoiced.
Here, then, is what we can learn about hope from Psalm 30: we need to hold onto the arc of the whole story, for to some extent, the psalmist’s story is also our own. But that can be hard to do when you’re stuck in one of the chapters or somewhere between. Are we in chapter 1? Chapter 2? We’re not expecting trouble, but shouldn’t be surprised when it comes.
Are we stuck in chapter 3? We may be traumatized by the enormity of what we’re facing. Maybe we’re transitioning to chapter 4. No longer completely frozen in fear, we’re scrambling for answers and crying out to God for help, even cutting deals: Lord, if you get me out of this…
When we’re in the midst of it, chapter 4 feels endless. But the whole story, which includes the climactic fifth chapter, changes how we see the troubles from which we’ve been rescued. There’s no denying that bad things happen, but when we’re being held in God’s saving hands, the bad things seem to shrink in significance: “His anger lasts only for a second, but his favor lasts a lifetime. Weeping may stay all night, but by morning, joy!” (Ps 30:5).
As we journey through the Psalms together, I will continue to caution us not to turn the psalmist’s story into some version of the prosperity gospel. While some psalms seem to read that way, the Psalter taken as a whole will not allow it. Meanwhile, ask yourself whether you can identify in any way with the psalmist’s story above. Ask whether you find yourself in one of the chapters right now.
Then ask yourself how you might hold onto the hope that there’s more to the story than there might seem at the present.