Growing up in the Dutch Bible Belt, a part of the Netherlands which is very conservative in its religious practice and outlook, I had to learn a psalm by heart every week from the time I was in first grade. In church, on Sunday morning, we then sang those psalms. Since there were only three hymns in our hymnbook, The Magnificat, the Nunc Dimitis, and the Grace, which were only sung very occasionally, it meant I was exposed to the psalms extensively and from very early on in my life.
The words and tunes of the psalms we sung went back, with only minor adjustments, to the time of the reformation. They were, in other words, four hundred years old. The language was archaic and beautifully poetic. And, I must admit, did not make that much sense to a primary school aged kid like I was. We sang those psalms slowly and non rhythmically, to organ music that was slow and plodding, with every note the same length as the others.
This resulted in a way of singing that was quite hypnotic. It was like listening to a drum beating at the same steady rhythm for a considerable amount of time. Or rather, being part of a living instrument that made that steady, hypnotic sound, winding its way from beginning to end of the psalm by uttering sounds we all knew, but most of us only half understood. It was a bit like reciting mantras. Sinking into some comfortable and comforting subconscious level that created a very special atmosphere and mindset. Singing so slowly and deliberately we sang the words into every fibre of our being, while at the same time going with the steady rhythm and flow enabled us to open our minds and souls to the mystical presence of God. Hearing the psalms sung like that will still move me deeply and touch me in places not many other things can. When I listen to them the words will automatically come to me, no matter if I understand them or not, so deeply engrained are they in my being.
Psalm 30 was sung often in our Church, and it is a psalm I love. I guess it is because of the balance between light and darkness, sadness and joy it pictures and the vividness of the imagery used. The darkness of the pit, contrasts with the light of praise and thanksgiving, weeping with joy, mourning with dancing, the heavy sackcloth of grief with a light garment of happiness. Where some psalms make the movement from the positive via despair and suffering back to joy and thanksgiving only once, this psalm moves between joy and despair and back to joy again a few times over. Reflecting a pattern that, in my experience, is more consistent with life as we live it. Life goes up and down, moves between joy and despair, between positive and negative, between disappointment and happiness all the time. Perhaps not as extreme as the psalm pictures it, but nevertheless, times that are easy going and times that are not so easy going alternating continuously over our life times.
What the psalm says, and reinforces a couple of times over, is that God is a power for good, for the positive, in that continuous process. It identifies God as the power behind weeping that turns into joy and mourning into dancing. Identifies God as the address for thanksgiving and praise.
The bad times dont turn around by accident or chance, the psalm says, there is something more to it, there is something or someone at work, along side us, to help make it happen. Something or someone who would rather not see us in the pit, something or someone who would rather not see us drown, something or someone who will push us in the right direction so the pendulum of our life swings back into balance and finds firm ground and solid foundations to continue the journey again.
Seven and a half years ago, on the first Sunday of February 2004, halfway through the afternoon, I sat in this Church full of self doubt and questions. I wasnt sure at all if I should have accepted the call to Toorak Uniting Church and at that moment what I could see was a daunting, quite overwhelming task and responsibility. Would I be able to manage it? Was this the right place for my children to grow up? Was I listening to Gods call, or was I going off on a tangent? First woman, first foreigner, English my second language, a Church full of well educated and highly skilled people, where would I find inspiration and ideas that would work here? There seemed to be so much more needed than the leadership, preaching and pastoral care I knew. Administration, management, never part of a ministers training, I would have to practice on a scale that I had never before. I comforted myself with the thought that there was a team of three others, and a Church Council of about 30 I would share the ministry with, but there was still an overpowering sense of inadequacy the afternoon before the induction.
The people I had tried to talk to, told me to shut up and get on with it. Of course Id be right, they told me, why else had God brought me here. Id successfully worked in ministry for about 15 years, in a variety of contexts, in several different countries even. I had a very solid academic background and had not only been trained as a minister but had been training others for a considerable amount of time. If that wasnt going to be enough, what would be?
Although I knew they were right, it was difficult to shake the insecurity and anxiety I felt. How on earth had I ever let myself be ordained? How on earth had I ever had the temerity to put my name forward to be considered for ministry of the word again?
So I did what I always do when I feel overwhelmed, I sat down to pray. Sat down and let the waves of insecurity and angst wash over me and subside, made space for whatever it was I needed to attain some sort of peace and calm before the service.
As always bits and pieces of the psalms floated through my mind, surfacing from my subconscious randomly, but filling me with the steady rhythm of the singing that had burnt their words into my soul. Snippets of text, of imagery, of concepts "I will change your mourning into dancing", "I am with you, always", flashed through my mind. Bits of stories, mostly remembered in the voice of my Sunday school teacher who could make you feel you were right there with Jesus and his friends, doing whatever they did, part of the scene and enveloped in their world. The story of the seventy, sent out by Jesus, two by two, blessing them with powers beyond their wildest dreams.
If they could do it, I could do it. Perhaps not the treading on snakes and scorpions or even the not being ever hurt by anything, but going out and taking the goodness of the gospel and the healing of Christ as I had received it myself to others. Did it matter where? Did it matter my command of the language might be lacking in places? Did it matter I would have to rely on others for things that were new to me, or seemed, at that moment in time, way beyond my capabilities? The only thing I needed to do was trust that God would be beside me and turn my mourning into dancing, my weeping into joy, my clumsiness and fallibility into something that would build and feed the Church and its people. The only thing I needed to do was set out, with others who had been called, like me, to love and to heal, to bring justice and peace, to live a life where Christ could take shape.
"Ill be with you" were words from scripture that burned my doubts away and made me surrender once again, enticed me to dare live my life counting on the mysterious life power of God in Christ to carry me and guide me. To rely on it swinging the pendulum of life back to positive, to laughter and joy, to celebration and dancing time and time again.
We have danced in the last 7 1/2 years, and we can be grateful for the laughter and joy that has come our way. There has been sadness too, weeping even, and pain and hurt, and times that felt heavy and difficult. The pendulum has swung back and forth a couple of times, from light and easy to dark and difficult, just like in the psalm. Enough times I hope to convince you that it will keep swinging back, that God will keep turning darkness into light, mourning into dancing, difficulty into opportunity. Enough times I hope for every body to realise that we are on our way, like those first disciples, to shape a ministry of healing and peace in our world together. Called to go confidently, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to carry us and keep us, now and forever.