I remember one winter when my wife, Becky, and I were going back to Indiana for a visit to her brother, Eddie, and his wife, Gayle. It’s cold in Indiana, very cold. And being native Californians, we wanted to know what to expect. So, we asked some of our friends who were from the Midwest how we should dress. They gave us lots of advice.
Mollie, from Minnesota, told us we should make sure to wear lots of layers. She said to wear long underwear, sock liners, as well as socks. She said we should wear gloves under our mittens. We should also make sure to cover our ears. Temperatures in the Midwest can get so cold they can kill you if you’re not careful. We were going to be prepared.
Well, when we arrived in Chicago, we both went into the appropriate bathrooms and changed into our winter clothes, just as advised. When I came out of the bathroom, I was wearing so many layers I was walking like the Michelin Man or Mr. Stay Puff from Ghostbusters. But at least I felt sure I would be warm and toasty. After we picked up our luggage, I saw a kiosk outside with a bus schedule. I told Becky I would pop out and check when the next bus was coming.
As I stepped outside, I felt the air being pulled from my lungs. Cold. I had never felt a cold anything like that before. Now mind you, I was wearing long underwear, heavy jeans, sock liners, socks, a shirt, a sweater, a scarf, a heavy pea coat, mittens, gloves, and I was freezing. As I understand it, the air off Lake Michigan brought the temperature down to 37 degrees below zero. It shouldn’t be allowed to be that cold. That’s all I have to say about that. I can only assume that had I worn my regular attire, I would have died on the spot, just another dead Southern Californian, lost to the Midwestern winter climate. I’m glad we asked for advice before we left.
That’s the good thing about asking advice. That’s why we ask our friends about movies they’ve seen before we see them. It’s why we ask about restaurants. It’s why we ask about cities we plan to visit. And the nice thing about that is that people are always happy to give you advice. If there’s one thing people love to do, it’s talk and share experiences. And that’s what the Psalms are.
The Psalms are 150 songs that relate man’s experience with the divine. Certainly, something as significant and moving as the god-experience warrants a song or a poem. Jewish tradition is that the Psalms were written by David, the boy who became king. Only 73 of the Psalms are directly attributed to David and most scholars believe that the Psalms were written by a number of authors over a period of about a thousand years. Psalm 30 is one attributed to David, written for the dedication of the temple.
I will lift you up, O Lord,
for you lifted me out of the depths and did not let my enemies gloat over me. O Lord my God, I called to you for help
and you healed me. O Lord, you brought me up from the grave;
you spared me from going down into the pit Sing to the LORD, you saints of his;
praise his holy name. For his anger lasts only a moment,
but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning. When I felt secure, I said,
"I will never be shaken." O Lord, when you favored me,
you made my mountain [c] stand firm; but when you hid your face, I was dismayed. To you, O Lord, I called;
to the Lord I cried for mercy: "What gain is there in my destruction, in my going down into the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your faithfulness? Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me;
O Lord, be my help." You turned my despair into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, That my heart may sing to you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever.
This, obviously, is a psalm of thanksgiving. It is believed the person who wrote this song has recovered from a serious illness. This may be literal or figural. In any case, it is the human experience of crisis. The psalmist tells us how wonderful everything was, how once there was a feeling as though everything would be wonderful forever. “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’” That certainly is my experience. When times are good, I feel like they will never end. But then, they do.
Within the psalm is an allusion to that idea that any misfortune was a punishment from God. The psalmist says that God did not allow his enemies to gloat over him. These enemies, however, need not be actual people, but could well be metaphors for the crisis facing the psalmist. When you’re broke, a lack of money is your enemy, after all. The grave mentioned in the psalm may not be an actual physical grave, but a spiritual, or emotional death.
Present in the Psalm is the idea that you come through times of crisis. Inherent is that idea that the cycle of good times and bad times is natural. The only thing in the universe that does not change is the cycle of change. Change is unchanging. Clearly, the psalmist shows that the divine spirit is present through the bad times and the good times. It is the nature of the Tao that our despair is eventually turned into dancing. That understanding, and the connection to the divine spirit, brings us through the catastrophes of life. The psalms mirrors that cycle of life through death to life.
In the story of Jesus, the gospel writer Mark tells us this story:
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat
to the other side,
a large crowd gathered around him, and he stayed close to the sea.
One of the synagogue officials, named Jairus, came forward.
Seeing him he fell at his feet and pleaded earnestly with him, saying,
"My daughter is at the point of death. Please, come lay your hands on her
that she may get well and live."
He went off with him,
and a large crowd followed him and pressed upon him.
While he was still speaking, people from the synagogue official's house arrived and said,
"Your daughter has died; why trouble the teacher any longer?" Disregarding the message that was reported,
Jesus said to the synagogue official,
"Do not be afraid; just have faith." He did not allow anyone to accompany him inside
except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James.
When they arrived at the house of the synagogue official,
he caught sight of a commotion,
people weeping and wailing loudly.
So he went in and said to them,
"Why this commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but asleep."
And they ridiculed him.
Then he put them all out.
He took along the child's father and mother
and those who were with him
and entered the room where the child was.
He took the child by the hand and said to her, "Talitha koum,"
which means, "Little girl, I say to you, arise!"
The girl, a child of twelve, arose immediately and walked around.
At that they were utterly astounded.
He gave strict orders that no one should know this
and said that she should be given something to eat.
As always, it doesn’t matter if the story is true or not. The story is about people feeling as though all is lost. Jesus calls for those afflicted the hold onto faith. All is not lost. The situation is not hopeless. The child isn’t dead, just sleeping. Everybody else thinks he’s nuts. They believe the child is dead. Jesus says no matter how bad things look, to hold onto faith in the divine. This is what the psalmist is trying to say. Nothing is permanent, not even death. Clearly, nothing in the universe is permanent. Therefore, death cannot be permanent either.
You see, when times are good, we feel like we can’t be shaken. We feel like to good times will last forever, but they don’t. And when times are bad, they feel like they will never end also. When you’re in the pit, it’s hard to see your way out of it. Just the understanding that you will get out of the pit, however, is your way out of the pit. It is this understanding that gives us strength. You can make it through anything. And that is the strength of God, your own strength.
This is why I love the Psalms. They are a composite of human experience. Just about every feeling I could ever feel about life and love, fear and death, every feeling about God, is there in the Psalms. Psalm 30 was a psalm for the dedication of a temple. Jesus and Saint Paul both say our bodies are a temple for the divine spirit. Psalm thirty is, therefore, a perfect song for the dedication of my temple. With this psalm, I dedicate my temple to the loving kindness of the creator, with the understanding that hard times will not last forever. I will not go down into the pit. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
So, the next time life throws you a curve, take some advice. Read the Psalms. Take it from me. There isn’t any place you’re going that someone hasn’t been before.