I waited and I waited. I waited and I waited and I waited. I waited and I waited and I waited and I waited patiently for the Beloved, for the Lord.
In case we think that anyone waits patiently at the bottom of a pit of despair, or as some translations of Psalm 40 call it, a miry bog, it’s said that a more accurate translation of the word patiently found in today’s psalm would be impatient, patience. Whoever the writer of this psalm was and whatever the circumstances were that caused them to write it, this is not someone who was sitting around patiently awaiting deliverance. This is the voice of someone who knows what it is like have their patience tested, to wait for a long time for circumstances to change or for good news come.
Maybe that is how you are feeling these days, like your patience is being tested. Perhaps you too are feeling impatiently patient or perhaps not patient at all. It’s running thin these days isn’t it? We’re tired of waiting to be delivered from the depths of Covid 19. In fact our collective impatience is on full display in Ottawa this weekend.
Some of us are also tired of waiting and praying for peace in our world as we watch the conflict that is brewing between Russia and Ukraine. We’re tired of waiting for meaningful reconciliation with our indigenous neighbours (and if we are tired imagine how weary they are.) We’re impatient for an end to racism and for a change in global warming. Maybe you are someone who is impatiently waiting for a medical test result or for a surgery or for someone in your life to reach out and get the help they need or simply to be in a different place than what you are in.
We all know what it is like to wait not with anticipation but with desperation. That’s the kind of waiting one does when one is at the bottom of a pit. It’s the kind of waiting that is referred to in the opening lines of our psalm this morning.
One of my good friends knows all about this kind of waiting. Eleven years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer and this summer she had a recurrence. Having been in a pit of despair before, she was familiar with its’ contours. She knew that when she was in that pit of not knowing that is part of a cancer journey the song she often sang was a song of worry and impatience. She knew that to get out of the pit, to be delivered from it she needed her friends and family, her community, to sing her a different song. So as soon as she was diagnosed she put a request on her Facebook page. She asked her community to create a playlist for her made up of songs and music she could listen to both when she felt hopeless and despairing and when she felt hopeful and celebratory. Send me your most uplifting songs, she said. And we obliged with hundreds of songs from a whole variety of music genres.
When I myself was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago I didn’t know enough to ask people to make me a playlist but there were several things that companioned me on my journey that were helpful. There were the paper hearts filled with your messages of encouragement and the prayer shawl that hung over the headboard of my bed when it wasn’t wrapped around me and there was my own playlist. The music I listened to when I was holed up in my bedroom recovering from various surgeries was almost all religious. Some days I would listen to recordings of anthems, other days I would listen to chants from Taize and Iona or sometimes I would listen to hymns, sometimes very old hymns.
Something that occurred to me about this over time was that all the pieces of music that accompanied me and lifted me up when I was in the pit came out of other people’s experiences of being in the miry bog and being delivered from it. No one writes a piece of religious or spiritual music from their intellect at least not the ones that have the greatest impact. They write those pieces from their lived experiences of life and faith.
Many of the songs, chants, hymns and anthems that touch our hearts speak directly to the longing we feel when we are dwelling at the bottom of a pit: Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger than your fear; In the quiet curve of evening, in the sinking of the days, in the silky void of darkness, you are there; Healer of our every ill, light of each tomorrow, give us peace beyond our fear, and hope beyond our sorrow. Sorrow, darkness and fear are mostly what we feel when we are in a pit of despair and into that reality what we need most is to hear is a voice of hope, comfort and reassurance, voices that understand what it is like to be in that place.
Other songs, chants and hymns witness to the deliverance that is promised when we find ourselves in a miry bog. They speak to the experience of being out the other end: Behold, Behold I make all things new, beginning with you and starting from today. Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved someone like me.
We need them both kinds of messages. When we’re in the pit we need to be sung to where we are at, we need our longing to be honoured. And when we are out of the pit we need to remember our deliverance, not just for ourselves but for those who will need us to bear witness to that deliverance in the future. And the great thing about music and song lyrics is that they can help us remember what we have experienced in the past. They can make the past, present once again.
On one of my summer internships when I was preparing for ordination I was placed in a congregation that had a ministry to a local care home for seniors. Every week we would visit the memory care floor where we would serve tea and then lead a sing-along time. Most of the songs were war era pieces. I was always amazed that people who could barely remember their own names could remember verses and verses of lyrics when the piano started to play a familiar tune.
I’m sure that’s why we have a section of psalms in our bible. All 150 of them would have originally be set to music so they could be memorized. God’s faithfulness to God’s people was kept alive through song.
One of the most poignant aspects of Psalm 40 is that it cycles in and out of impatient patience. The psalmist begins in the miry bog, is delivered from it, witnesses to that deliverance and then ends up calling out for deliverance again as if to mirror the way that life itself can be like that. Deliverance from the circumstances that leave us longing for God rarely last a lifetime. Which is why being part of community is so important because on the days when I can no longer sing a new song, I might just need you to sing one for me.
Back in the early 80’s the Irish rock band U2 headed up by frontman Bono wrote a version of Psalm 40 that beautifully reflects that cycle with the use of two choruses put together as one. Interspersed between words about being lifted out of the pits by God and having our feet set upon a rock our footsteps firm come the words “I will sing, sing a new song” followed immediately by a cry of yearning “how long to sing this song? How long to sing this song.”
In the same way that we are waiting for an era of Covid and racism, division and war to come to and they too were waiting for things to change especially around the troubles in Northern Ireland.
They used to end all their concerts by singing the song they simply called “40.” At the very end of the show, Bono would come out and he would get the audience singing “How long to sing this song?” over and over and over again until the band had left the stage and the audience was left singing to themselves. Some have reported that the singing carried on out into the streets well after the concert had ended and sometimes not only would you hear the “How long to sing this song?” chorus sung, you would hear people start up a chorus of “I will sing, sing a new song.”
Carl Jung talked about the seed of yearning that has been planted in every human heart. It calls to us to seek wholeness for ourselves which ultimately is a call of wholeness for our world because I can’t be whole until everyone is whole. On days when we sense that wholeness we find ourselves singing a new song and on days when we cannot find it we need to have it sung into us by someone else.
This week I heard some statistics around the music we have been listening to during Covid. It turns out that for the most part the music we have been listening to is old music. Sometimes when you are going through a difficult time, you need to be reminded of better days and sometimes those memories come most readily through the music we that we chose to listen to. But as surely as God delivers us from the pit over and over and over again, we too will sing a new song some day in the not too distant future and when we do that song will be very sweet song indeed.