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Earlier this year, I was running beside the Water of Leith. I had in mind the opening of Psalm 137 (ok, it was actually Rivers of Babylon by Boney M… ), and I was imagining some people openly weeping with some harps hung in the nearby trees. The rest of that Psalm is worth discussing another time, but I had a few thoughts before some Christmas encouragement.
I wondered if maybe I would tell this imaginary criers not to cry any more because there is no temple any more and they are free to worship the Lord wherever they want, but then that there might be good in crying.
David says (Psalm 30):
You turned my wailing into dancing;
You took my sackcloth and you clothed me
with garments of joy
Let my glory sing to you Lord;
sing and not be silent.
Thanks be to the Lord!
He knows that God has helped him in the past when he was in grief, and uses this to praise God in whatever his current distress is.
Likewise, The Sons of Korah say (Psalm 42):
Why are you downcast, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.
Most strikingly, an unknown Psalmist says (Psalm 126):
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing seeds for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
The diligent gospel worker will keep going through their current distress and there will be rewards.
The Lord himself wept bitterly at Lazarus’ graveside before he raised him. Even though he could bring his friend back, the reign of death in the world as a result of sin cut him to pieces. No one would comfort him, instead saying “See how he loved him!”.
The reason I am bringing all this up is that I have seen much joy in Chalmers this year. We have our building now, in a great location (not just because I can walk), people have become Christians, people have got married and had babies, and the youngsters are a constant encouragement.
Yet, I see people hurting from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that befall us in this fallen world. While we wait on the sure and certain hope outlined in the Psalms above, it’s ok to lament as individuals, but also to weep with those who weep. I have seen much of this in Chalmers this year (you see a lot from the video desk!), be it with someone providing a literal shoulder to cry on, or even a simple touch on the arm and a smile to say “I’m here”. These are important things and a sign of a healthy church, and I really want to encourage you on that.
Isaiah 40 promised an end to Israel’s mourning after its exile with the coming Messiah, and while we still cry, we rejoice in the certain hope of a future with God.
Have a great Christmas.
For us growing up, Christmas day was one of those days where you could set your watch by what happened.
We’d wake up early, open the stocking that was left for us by Santa, which would have a comic or magazine, toothbrushes, and chocolate. This kept us going until we’d had our breakfast and got dressed. We weren’t allowed to just go straight in and open our presents; the door to the front room would be shut and we’d only be allowed in once Dad had set up the video camera in order to film us coming in. You can see personalities from the footage- my older brother being super-excited, me hanging back being fully aware of the camera and being wary of giving the “right” reaction, and my younger brother being innocent and having to be helped with his presents. And Mum trying not too get stressed about too much wrapping paper lying around.
Church was at 10AM, and for the only time in the year, we were allowed to bring our toys along. By that time, I had already broken Optimus Prime, but I didn’t mention it as I didn’t want to ruin the day (plus, the break was not that big a deal). Of course, being the minister’s family, we had to arrive early (sometimes up to half an hour, which is a long time to kick your heels), meaning less time for playing with our toys, so we’d leave maybe around 9:20 and make our way through the near deserted streets. In order to preserve the harmony, I would make a point of having the usual Sunday morning argument with my younger brother about who had to sit in the uncomfortable middle car seat.
I remember one year seeing a young man wearing glasses walking on his own and smoking a cigarette near the Manse Road, by the Strangford Arms Hotel. I didn’t say anything, but I remember being sad for him that it was Christmas morning and he was on his own and didn’t seem to have any presents. Of course, he might have been going somewhere to be with someone, but I didn’t know anything. You’d see that no planes would be taking off from the aerodrome by the Comber Road before you turned right into the West Winds, where many of the residents had had their decorations up since Halloween.
We’d get in and sit and wait for the service to start, while some of the well-meaning grown-ups would come and ask us about our presents (other kids didn’t tend to arrive until close to the time and would leave as soon as the service ended). They would say “wow” at the toys we had, but I didn’t really know what to say back, I think because I had some belief that showing enthusiasm in anything was annoying to the other person or that they’d laugh at me for it (as was basically my experience in high school). The conversations never lasted very long.
The service would start with O Come All Ye Faithful and would be accompanied throughout by an array of clicks, bleeps, and robot noises, or girls combing their dolls’ hair. Dad would do a bit where he’d go round the congregation and ask people about the presents they got, from which he usually spared us. The kids would enthusiastically talk about their lego, or a baby doll; he’d usually ask one of the elders too, and it would usually be a jumper to which I as a child would usually roll me eyes and say to myself “how boring!”.
After a short sermon and a bit of Joy to the World, some more waiting around while my parents talked to people and then we were off home, to enjoy our toys. Freedom at last!
It would be around 12 and Mum would set about making the lunch, a choice of prawn cocktail or melon, followed by an amazing turkey dinner with all the trimmings (just two kinds of potatoes, if any of you are fans of casual racism, though I generally avoided Brussels Sprouts). Pudding was after the Queen, no arguments. One year, my Dad told me off for having a mince pie after a mint (“I told you that the mint is always the last thing!”). At some point, my older brother would put Star Wars on (Return of the Jedi was the only one we had at the time, so the “I am your father” revelation lost its impact on me). In my adolescence, I wanted to watch the Top of the Pops Christmas special, but never did, as it clashed with lunch. I’d like to tell you it was about seeing great music, but alas it was more about fancying Baby Spice.
Granny and Granda would usually make an appearance after the Queen, when they’d come from Comber and drop off some more presents and the grown-ups would have coffee. Uncle Bobby, my granny’s brother, came with them and would challenge me on the small snooker table we had at the time (I am not sure I ever beat him). We wouldn’t see my other Granny and Granda as they’d usually be on holiday. Somehow, presents from my mum’s parents would be fun toys, while presents from my dad’s parents would be clothes (not so much fun).
By now, it would be dusk and the setting sun would cause Scrabo Hill to shine. My grandparents would set off for one of the other uncles’ or aunts’ houses in Kircubbin or Donaghadee. Then, much TV would be watched with a small tea of wheaten bread and smoked salmon before we all went to bed. The final ritual was for us to take our presents up to our room, while Dad filmed us leaving the front room. I did not enjoy this (basically, for me this was a normal thing, and the extra attention I got for doing this fairly normal thing really didn’t sit well with me), to the point where one year, I took the presents up secretly while my grandparents were around. Then I announced I was going to bed while I was already halfway out the door. Mum begged to allow Dad to film me, but, stubbornly, I said no. My brother came to my room later and accused me of ruining Christmas. It was probably fair comment, but that was the end of that particular tradition as it was never mentioned again.
Time marched on, and the traditions changed. We left Newtownards in 1999. We grew up. We wanted mp3 players (and bizarrely, one year, a pager) instead of Transformers. Grandparents died. Cousins moved to Australia. I left Northern Ireland. A few years later, my older brother did too*, and then he got married. This year, we’ll all be together, but this time, with a girl (my sister-in-law).
I can see now that my parents worked hard to create great memories for us at Christmas time. When you’re a child, you do not see this, the discussions about going to buy the presents (only for the credit to be given to some phony in the north pole), the hours it spent to wrap them, to chop the vegetables, baste the turkey, visit relatives, and bear with months-long excitement building up to it, not to mention grumpy adolescents who hate being on camera. When you realise all this, it makes you both exceptionally thankful, and makes you realise what a spirit-filled life looks like. Patience, kindness, and gentleness abounding, because of God coming down to live with us, to relate to us, and to bring us closer to him.
Jesus is God’s son, whom he loves; he is worth listening to.
On 10th November 2002, I went to bed after playing some pool with friends in Pollock Halls. Early the next morning, my stomach cramped up and I spent most of the rest of the time that I should have been sleeping vomiting into a bucket. The next morning, I cried for such a long time that a couple of the girls in the halls next to me came to my door to ask me if I was ok and to ask if I needed anything. I never forgot that kindness. It was the first time I had been properly sick since leaving home and I missed having my mum around to look after me.
I didn’t think that it would be fifteen years until I cried again, but that’s exactly what happened. I do not know why I have been unable to cry for so long, since during that time I’ve had heartbreak, deaths, illness, disappointment, and all the other whips and scorns of time, as well as weddings, glorious sporting results, getting a PhD, and running half marathons, the delight of a man’s heart.
I walked away from someone who wasn’t a Christian who wanted to marry me. I unlocked secrets of the universe and depression stopped me from telling many people about it. I heard (and didn’t believe) gossip that would destroy marriages and ruin careers. I watched as a man collapsed and died. I have had my internal monologue talk me out of asking good Christian women out and saw as another man asked them instead. I have felt feelings that I may never fully understand. And I could not cry.
This morning, during the last songs at church, I experienced a wave of grief and sadness I just couldn’t hold back. One of my friends came to comfort me and understood what was causing it, that I had been devastated by some recent events. The release was hard to describe, but I felt a degree of relief that it had finally happened, the events themselves notwithstanding.
Here is Psalm 30.
A Psalm of David. A song at the dedication of the temple.
I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up
and have not let my foes rejoice over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment,
and his favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity,
“I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O Lord,
you made my mountain stand strong;
you hid your face;
I was dismayed.
To you, O Lord, I cry,
and to the Lord I plead for mercy:
“What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me!
O Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
you have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
David wrote this Psalm for the temple’s dedication, but the temple would not be completed until several years after his death. He trusted God that it would be built, so he turned to a situation in his past where he felt far from God, and recalled that He turned the situation around and turned his wailing to dancing. By appealing to God’s past help, he knew he could trust God to see his plans through, and it’s this that is giving me great comfort today.