Dealing with the Deficit of Appreciation
by The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, June 13, 2021
Reading: Psalm 126
The bus driver made an announcement: “I'm sorry, friends, we’re not going to be able to stop in Jerusalem tonight. Unfortunately, we’re about to encounter a sandstorm, and we’re going to have to pull off into another hotel in another town, to find safety.”
Marial and I were on a tour from Eilat to Jerusalem but the sandstorm came up and we had to pull off in the town of Arad, which is on the very edge of the Negev Desert, not very far from Beersheba. As we approached the hotel, a frightening scene occurred. We could see absolutely nothing; not the roads, the sky, nothing. There we were, stuck on the borders of the Negev, climbing out of our bus in the middle of a sandstorm. If you think a snowstorm is hard, believe you me, a sandstorm is even harder. Sand gets into your mouth and your eyes, your nose and your ears.
We stayed in the hotel and had something to eat. The power went off sometimes, but there was a powerful wind all night long buffeting the windows. At one point, we heard a scratching at the window, and we looked out to see what it was, and there was a donkey, pressed against the window, with his head turned towards the wall, to protect itself from the wind and the sand. She was completely covered, as was the whole scene outside. We looked at her and felt compassion for her. It was almost as if, in that moment, we were keeping each other company. It was a beautiful moment in a dangerous time, and whenever I read Psalm 126, and we come to that wonderful line about the Lord and the Lord’s comfort. “Restore – restore our fortunes, oh, Lord, like the water courses of the Negev” I think about that moment.
The Negev, as a desert, is often known for its sandstorms. It is famous right in biblical times. It was known to be dry – the word Negev implies that – it’s in the south, in the hotter part of the country. There were also these water courses, as they called them, really streams, that during the dry season, are completely arid, but in the rainy season, become this beautiful tributary, often going down towards the Dead Sea. They restore everything around. It’s a form of irrigation. The psalmist and all the believers saw that in these water courses, God’s provision in the midst of barrenness. It’s a beautiful image. Even to this day, kibbutzim are built in that area, precisely because of the irrigation of the water courses, even on the edge of the Negev.
The Bible is full of the imagery of God providing water to restore and renew both creation and the people. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the book of Ezekiel. Where Ezekiel has a vision about the people of Israel coming back to the promised land after the exile. He writes this – listen to the language of water and restoration.
‘Son of man, do you see this?’ God says. Then He led me back to the bank of the river, and when I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river. He said to me, ‘this water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh. So, where the river flows, everything will live’.
Jesus, in John’s Gospel, uses a very similar phrase in Chapter 7, Verse 38. He talks about the streams of living water, referring, of course, to himself, as well as the acts and the works of God. So, in biblical times, there is this strong belief that the streams of living water are a sign of God’s provision, not only for people who live with physical dryness in the arid deserts, but who live in spiritual dryness.
This psalm was written right after the people had returned from exile in 538 BC and were experiencing great barrenness, both spiritually and socially, politically, morally and physically, on all levels. They had lived in exile for seventy years – and here we go again, the number seventy appears, as it has in our last two sermons – with the number of people who were in Moses’ tent and the number of disciples that Jesus called. Seventy is a complete number and represents a totality of experience. The seventy years meant more than just seventy actual years; it meant that the people themselves had lived in exile, away from each other, away from their God, away from the things that were meaningful for them.
But now the psalmist is writing a song of the people returning. “Restore our fortune, oh Lord, like the water courses of the Negev. Come and refresh us, come and make us new.”
I think many people feel that they have had, and that we are experiencing an exile of sorts over the last year and a half. After all, we have not been able to come to our place of worship. Exiles weren't allowed to go to their temple. We have not been able to have community and meet with one another, sometimes even those who are closest to us. The same with the exiles, whose families were often separated. And we haven't been able to celebrate – and I think this is important – the festivals that make our faith so important, that express our love for the birth of Jesus at Christmas, or the resurrection of Jesus at Easter, when we can be extravagant and have meals and family and faith. Well, the exiles in biblical times were not given those opportunities either. So, it’s as if this psalm is talking to us, isn't it? “Restore our fortunes, oh Lord, like the water courses of the Negev.” This biblical song talks very much about the past and really good songs are able to elicit emotions and memories of the past.
Paul McCartney once, when being interviewed about writing his piece, Penny Lane, talked about how he wrote it because of a barber that he would visit to have his hair cut. (I know it’s a sore point with all of us right now, but he was able to go to his barber and have his hair cut.) The barber would take photographs of all the people whose heads of hair he’d cut, and put them on the wall. There was this sense of remembrance of people who had been part of the life of the barber. “Penny Lane,” says McCartney, “was a walk down memory lane, really, a remembrance of all of those people.” That’s what a song of memory does. And that’s what the psalmist is doing here. He’s trying to capture a memory where the mouths would be able to sign praises, where the tongues could speak boldly, where the nation was the envy of the world. Where God has done great things for the people, and they rejoiced.
I’ve thought about this, because what we have here is a deep sense, a wistful sense, on the part of the psalmist for those days when God was glorious and mouths could sing and the nation was envied by everyone but the exile had cut that down. I think our lives have to some extent during the pandemic, been cut down, and by cut down I mean, as a nation we’ve always prided ourselves on being the peace-keepers, on having a history of being inclusive, and welcoming of people. We like to pride ourselves on all our great, and rightly so, if they are achievements. But over the last week or two, we’ve had a crisis like the people of Israel did during the exile, and they said, “could we have done what we have done?” As a nation, could we really do these things to indigenous people? Do we still do, as citizens – even if it’s one citizen – an act of violence against a group of people, just for their faith?
So, like the exiles, we might sing a song of the past, but at the same time recognise that we ourselves need to change. I think one of the things that we need to understand and to appreciate is that we have not always appreciated the things that we have. There is a sense in which we have become complacent, and maybe this pandemic shattered that for us.
Last week, I read the speech to the graduation class of Boston College – this was in May – by David Brooks, the writer from the New York Times. There were a couple of things that he said that stood out for me and I want to share them with you. He said:
I don’t know about you, but I'm going to try to be the world’s appreciator. I'm going to try to deeply appreciate all the things I took for granted. All the things that didn’t used to seem fun, are suddenly going to seem fun. Not being able to catch the bartender’s attention, because the bar is packed, that’ll seem like fun. I'm a Mets fan, but going to a Yankees game will seem fun, so long as they lose. Going to a wedding will be fun, even when I think the couple are making a mistake.
Going to age-inappropriate concerts will be fun. I don’t care if you don’t want a Darn Boomer in your Cardi B concert, I'm going anyway.
Well, a lot of things are there for us to appreciate, but as St. Augustine said, some desires are higher than other desires. In a world of plenty, when we have so much, it’s probably going to be necessary to sit down with a piece of paper and rank the desires of our hearts, and then make sure that your schedule matches your rankings, and that you have a deep sense of appreciation.
What great words for a graduating class, but also, what great words for us now. How great the words were for those in exile. To not take for granted the things that we’ve had in the past, but to recognise that as we go forward, in a sense of appreciation and gratitude, we should understand what God has truly blessed us with. “Restore, oh Lord, our fortunes like the water courses of the Negev.”
This poem, this song, was also about the present. As I said, for eighteen months, we feel like exiles, and there might be a few months to yet endure. There will be bumpy roads along the way. We’re unsure what’s going to happen. Many of you, I know, feel a kind of spiritual dryness and barrenness as a result of this, and you pray for God to help deal with us, to restore us, and to restore our fortunes like the water courses of the Negev. But just like the people of Israel, for that to happen, maybe we ourselves, in our own hearts and minds, need to change. It’s not about sitting back and hoping that everything will return to the way that it was. No, in the present, we should very much be looking also to the future. We should be looking to see how the world emerging from this, is going to be a better place. You and I should be part of that discussion. You and I should be seeking the wisdom and the guidance of the Lord as to what kind of a world it’s going to be as we return from this period of exile.
David Brooks went on to say to these students, and I must admit, this was the passage that really shattered me – this is great:
This was a school, I remind you, that was built on the resurrection. The stone moved; the tomb was empty. This was a school built on a death and a waiting on a risen Christ. Maybe I shouldn’t quote a Presbyterian here in a Catholic university, but my friend Tim Keller points out that this resurrection story is a story of hope and awakening. Glorious hope, certain hope, subversive hope, hope in the presence of joy, and hope in the presence of suffering.
The resurrection story is a story that we’re guided by, inspired by and given hope by, in a moment of national recovery and reawakening.
After a resurrection, things have a tendency not to go back to the way they used to be. The teaching of the resurrection is that everything gets inverted. To find yourself, you have to lose yourself; to gain power, you have to give up yourself. Salvation comes through the weakness of repentance. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride, and failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility.
Inversion follows inversion. God chooses the poor over the rich, the foolish over the wise, and the meek over the proud.
Wow, God bless David Brooks. He’s right, you know. We are always people of the resurrection and while the glorious hope of those that were in exile in biblical times, before the life of Jesus, was that they prayed, “Restore our fortunes, oh Lord, like the water courses of the Negev.” We who believe in the living water, the living stream, Jesus Christ, know that it is in him that we find that restored life, and God in the present, preparing us for the future.
Which brings me, finally, to the future. There’s a beautiful line in the psalm that has led to many songs, “May those who will sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” The tears are the waters of repentance and sorrow, but they will reap with joy. God will transform them. I believe, with the psalmist, that’s God’s going to do that, and I believe if we’re willing to repent, if we’re willing to turn our hearts to God, he can help bring us through this in a beautiful and a mighty way.
There's a story I was reading about Trinidad and Tobago. Many years ago, Trinidad and Tobago had a problem with leprosy. One of the ways they dealt with this was to put a lot of their lepers on an island in isolation. Quite an image. Often the only people who would take care of them were Christians, who would provide health and spiritual nourishment, hope and healing, and bandage their wounds and look after their souls. These Christians, including Pastor Hinton, risked themselves in doing this.
A lot of those lepers, before they contracted leprosy, had been ordinary citizens attending worship services like everybody else on the islands, but now are isolated. Pastor Hinton decided that it would be nice to have a hymn-sing in the midst of all of this. And so he did. Now, most of those that were there were health caregivers, nurses and doctors and others, but a lot of them were lepers themselves, kept at a safe distance. Hilton asked at one point, “Would anyone like to come forward and make a suggestion of a song that we could sing?”
One lady, whose head had been buried under the pew, lifted it up. She was a woman whose face was eaten away by leprosy, whose ears had gone, who had lost fingers, who was severely disfigured. She said, “I would like us to sing Count your Blessings, name them one by one.”
One of the nurses came up to the minister afterwards and said, “You’ll never sing that song again, will you, Pastor?”
And he said, “Oh yes, I will. I’ll just never sing it again in the same way.” He was changed by what he had seen in the devastation of people living in exile. What an image for us as we go forward into the next weeks and months ahead. As we pray fervently, “Restore our fortunes, oh Lord, like the water courses of the Negev.” Come like a stream of water and be with us, change us, and make us more grateful than we ever were.
When the sandstorm ended, and everything had died down, we looked out the window again, and there was the donkey still. The donkey standing against the window, but now all the sand was gone, everything was flat. The donkey seemed very much at peace. I swear that donkey smiled at us, but Marial and I will continue to debate that.
It was a wonderful moment, and as we went out and got in the bus, we watched the donkey walk away, having been sheltered and protected, going out into the Negev, hopefully finding the water courses and the streams. Wow, what an image for all of those who face the barrenness of exile but find the glory of the Lord. Amen.