And not be silent

I love the psalms, I have long loved them. I love them because they are so very old, and yet they don’t talk about ancient realities, but about the life I know. I love them because they are familiar, human speech.

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.[1]

Whoever wrote those lines – who knows when – gave words to a longing and a thirst we all know in our bones. Walter Brueggemann wrote, “The Psalms, with few exceptions, are not the voice of God addressing us. They are rather the voice of our own common humanity, gathered over a long period of time; a voice that continues to have amazing authenticity and contemporaneity. It speaks about life the way it really is, for the same issues and possibilities persist in those deeply human dimensions.”[2]

The voice of our own common humanity that speaks about life as it really is. I love the psalms for that voice, and for the ways in which it gives witness to the elusive presence of God – elusive, but utterly trustworthy:

Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.[3]

Whoever wrote this line – who knows when – has wept through many a night and came back with a song about the faithfulness of God. I love the psalms because they invite us to sing along.

In the early fourteenth century, Richard Rolle wrote about the psalms in the preface to his translation,

Psalm singing chases fiends, excites angels to our help, removes sin, pleases God. It shapes perfection, removes and destroys annoyance and anguish of soul. As a lamp lighting our life, healing of a sick heart, honey to a bitter soul, this book is called a garden enclosed, well sealed, a paradise full of apples![4]

Wether we sing them, say them, chant or read them, the psalms invite us into conversation with God about things that matter most. In these poems and songs we encounter God, who meets us in the depths of need and on the heights of celebration. “The Psalms draw our entire life under the rule of God, where everything may be submitted to the God of the gospel.”[5]

The psalm we said together this morning ends on a note of joyous praise and gratitude:

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you haven 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.

For a while, though, the psalmist remembers, for a while silence was a very real possibility; not the beautiful silence of holding a sleeping infant in your arm or gazing at a full moon in the winter sky. No, a very different silence, the silence that spreads when life drains away.

There was a time when everything was just right. You had a job and you loved it. The kids were doing great and you didn’t have to worry about your parents. Your doctor smiled when she saw you and said, “Whatever it is you’re doing, keep doing it.” Your friends loved hanging out with you and you enjoyed food, wine, music, movies, and making travel plans. You were the poster child of happiness and confidence – and then it was like a pit opened and threatened to swallow everything. That is the very moment where this psalm comes from: As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall NEVER be moved – and then my whole world began to spiral downward. The rock of my life had turned into quicksand and I was sinking fast.”

Life is about well-being and joy, about vitality in our relationships and in our sense of self, and about flourishing in all of life’s seasons; and death is, in many ways, part of life. But we also know death as a force that invades the realm of the living out of season and drains all vitality and joy from it. We know death as a reality that doesn’t serve God’s purposes, but negates them. A pit opens and threatens to swallow everything in a silence from which there is no escape.

Sometime at the beginning of the 20th century, somewhere in southern Appalachia, somebody wrote a song that sounds almost like a psalm. No one has the foggiest idea who wrote it, and there are a lot of versions of that song scattered throughout the South.[6] I’m not from these parts, and so I first heard it when I watched O Brother, Where Art Thou? I’m talking about Ralph Stanley singing O Death.

O, Death. O, Death.
Won’t you spare me over ‘til another year?

‘O, death’ someone would pray
‘Could you wait to call me another day?’
The children prayed, the preacher preached
Time and mercy is out of your reach
I’ll fix your feet ‘til you can’t walk
I’ll lock your jaw ‘til you can’t talk
I’ll close your eyes so you can’t see
This very hour, come and go with me
I’m death I come to take the soul
Leave the body and leave it cold

O, Death. O, Death.
Won’t you spare me over ‘til another year?

My mother came to my bed
Placed a cold towel upon my head
My head is warm my feet are cold
Death is a-movin’ upon my soul
Oh, death how you’re treatin’ me
You’ve closed my eyes so I can’t see
Well you’re hurtin’ my body, you make me cold
You run my life right outta my soul
Oh death please consider my age
Please don’t take me at this stage (…)

This song emerged in a world where death holds great power. So overwhelming is death’s power that it has been personified, and there is no one else to plead with. There’s nothing here to chase away the fiends or remove the anguish of soul, no lamp, no light, no honey to a bitter soul.

O, Death. O, Death.
Won’t you spare me over ‘til another year?

The song ends in silence, after a plea that can imagine life’s continuation only as the whim of a tyrant.

I love the psalms because they don’t white-wash the reality of death that surrounds us in the midst of life. The psalms sing of life’s fragility, of the depth of human suffering, and even of the terrifying experience of God’s silence and absence – but they affirm, with a voice we recognize as our own, that God hears our cries and is summoned by them and is able to make all things new.

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 (…)
you brought up my soul from Sheol.

Sometimes endings disrupt our sense of life’s goodness and promise. Sometimes death invades our world and we find that our experiences clash painfully with our beliefs, even to the point of feeling abandoned and forsaken by God. Sometimes the pit opens and there is nothing left to hold onto but a cry. I love the psalms because they do not deny that reality or drown it out with happy ditties; they acknowledge it, they give us words to speak about it, and they praise God who can make a way where there is no way; they sing of new joy, new hope, new purpose, and invite us to sing along.

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.

The psalms are songs of transformation; they declare how God has turned mourning into dancing, exile into homecoming, death into resurrection. The psalms are songs of transformation; whether we sing them, say them, chant or read them, they nourish divine hope in our hearts. They are what Walter Brueggemann has called “songs of impossibility,” songs that make the bold and joyous claim “that conventional definitions of reality do not contain or define what God will yet do.” [7] Reality is not closed in by death, but open to the creative possibilities of God who lifts up the lowly and brings down the mighty, who feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty, who makes the barren woman the joyous mother of children, and brings the exiles home. These wonderful songs challenge everything but the faithfulness of God. Things don’t have to be the way they are, they declare, because God is God.

And so we come together to sing the songs of impossibility. Every Sunday we give praise to God who raised Jesus from the dead. Every day we say to the world, “All our presumptions about what can happen have been overruled!” And therefore no one, no man, woman, or child must be left singing songs of despair that plead with death to spare them over ‘til another year. Nothing is more realistic now than boundless hope. So let us praise God and not be silent.


[1] Psalm 42:1-2

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms (Winona, MN: Saint Mary’s Press, 2001), p. 13

[3] Psalm 30:5

[4] Richard Rolle, The Psalter or Psalms of David and Certain Canticles, with a Translation and Exposition in English by Richard Rolle of Hampole. Edited from Manuscripts by the Rev. H. R. Bramley, with an Introduction and Glossary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1884), p. 3; my italics

[5] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1984), p. 15

[6] Kansas City Star

[7] See Patrick Miller, “In Praise and Thanksgiving,” Theology Today Vol. 45, No. 2, p. 186