What you just heard was Thelonious Monk’s haunting tune “Round Midnight”. It is a composition based on eleven notes, played differently each time, always begging for closure and yet never quite finding resolution. When folks hear Monk for the first time often their reaction is less than complimentary. He doesn’t play music that fits our ear. It is dissonant, haunting, reflecting someone who has wrestled with life and come out the other side with a different answer. Some musicians claimed Monk was crazy until they sat down and played his compositions. Monk changed the landscape of jazz because as he liked to say, “A piano doesn’t have any wrong notes. It just has notes you’re afraid to play.” That sort of fits my definition of the unknown. The unknown will haunt you, even terrify you but eventually it might save you. Round Midnight was a sonnet written after many a sleepless night before finally discovering a new harmony at dawn with the power to melt ones discontent.
What haunts the writer of Psalm 30? Does it really matter? The far more important question is why is midnight to dawn sometimes the longest six hours of our day? How did this poet come to understand and embrace his mourning? How is she able to dance with the coming of the dawn?
If you want to discover answers concerning the human psyche, it is best to learn from someone like Monk who was just a little bit crazy. Walter Brueggemann, the best Old Testament scholar I know, has certainly experienced both the dusk and dawn. Because of his own “demons”, he comes to the Psalms in a way that invite both my left feet to the dance floor.
Brueggemann claims within the Book of Psalms we encounter three distinct categories of poems. There are the ones we experience regularly in our hymns. “For the beauty of the Earth” or “I will lift my eyes to the hills” are relatively harmless songs glorify God as the creator of the entire universe. Being folks who have chosen to live in paradise, we celebrate these poems on a regular basis.
A second category of poems often remain hidden from public view. They are dark stories which expose the frailty of the human spirit. “Help me God; I am waste deep in my own discontent.” “Rescue me God from those who would conspire to do me harm.” Psalms of lament expose the underbelly of our souls. They are desperate songs, filled with angst written by someone who has lost hope in everything but God. Sometimes that is not a bad place to be.
The problem we discover is we are always going round in circles trying to get back to the starting point before our troubles, before our dreams, interrupted what we thought was a pretty good life. Once returning to the starting point, we refuse to believe anything is seriously wrong. So we hop back on the road most often traveled. And the troubles and the dreams return. We can fool anyone in the daylight. But we can’t even fool ourselves round midnight.
Psalm 30 is a step beyond this vicious circle. It is a song of new orientation. That is a fancy way of saying our trials will be over only when we pick up some place other than where we originally started. Guy Clark, another crazy musician, has made a career writing songs about folks looking for a new dawn. One of my favorites is about a woman leaving a marriage because she and her husband can only go round and round. Clark writes,
She ain’t going nowhere, she’s just leaving,
She ain’t going nowhere she can’t breathe in,
She ain’t going home, and that’s for sure.
Psalms of new orientation tell us we can never go home again. That is not exactly what we want to hear. We are comfortable at home. We trust being home after all home is home sweet home. It is our fortress, our savior, our source of all that is and all that will be. It is where we find our joy and delight…… most of the time. But home, the trusted familiar, often camouflages a season of ragged and painful disarray. Retreating guarantees stagnation. Is that really all we desire? Must we remain comfortable with the shadows that disrupt our rest? Or do we dare turn to another source of salvation.
Considering the science of psychology is a little more than 100 years old it is amazing the conclusions reached by the author of the 30th Psalm. First, humans desire seasons of well being. But humans experience seasons of hurt and alienation often resulting in resentment and self-pity. Then we are surprised, even overwhelmed, when joy breaks through despair. The Psalmist identifies this as decisive move to live in the light of God’s grace. The Psalmist makes a radical leap from faith in himself to faith in something larger than she could imagine. The author travels from fear, to surprise, to thanksgiving.
I believe with all my heart this is what brings us brings us to the Lord’s Table. Enthralled by the midnight of our discontent we desire our mourning to be turned to dancing. The body broken reminds us of our own brokenness. But each time the cup is lifted we are surprised by the gift of God’s grace. Going home is no longer a return to the expected but a journey into new possibilities. When we travel uplifted by the grace of God, we travel clothed with joy, we travel a new road, living a new life all to the glory of God. In our joy we are able to sing:
O God, shine forth into the darkness of our night.
O God, melt the frost that encompasses our soul.
Wake us to the dawn of a new day,
Filled with colors we have never before experienced.
You have turned our mourning into dancing,
And we will give you thanks forever. Amen.