“Back to Square One?”

A Reflection on Psalm 126 by Canon Rob, 3rd April

Think back, if you can, to a time when everything seemed to go wrong and you felt as if this bad time would never end. Then it does. Life gets “back to normal” and you find yourself saying, “Thank the Lord!” and breath a sigh of relief. The first three verses of Psalm 126 put that sense of relief into words. Indeed there is more to it than this, for in those early verses the author is encouraging his readers to remember the good times, and specifically the time when God delivered the people of Israel from captivity in exile in Babylon. Cyrus, the king, allowed them to return to their homeland in about 538 B.C. They probably couldn’t believe it at first for as verse 1 says, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream.” But it was true and they were filled with joy. Or as verse 2 puts it, “Then was our mouth filled with laughter and our tongue with songs of joy.” What beautiful words which sum up so well that sense of relief.

We all know that life is full of “ups and downs” and, as long as the down times are not too bad, we learn to cope. However, sometimes when one thing after another goes wrong and, just as we are getting over it, something else happens and we feel as if we are back to square one again. For those suffering from “Long Covid” this is what life can be like for them. One day they feel really well and then the day after they are completely exhausted and can’t concentrate on anything. When I was a practising counsellor, clients – who were making good progress – could turn up one day feeling very low and being really hard on themselves, convinced they were “back to square one” again. It was difficult to help them to see that they weren’t because that is very seldom, in fact probably never, the case even though it feels like it.

Quite what had happened to the people of God we don’t know, but clearly it was something serious and the people were in trouble again. They were “back to square one!” Here we again see how the author of the psalm has the gift of being able to put pen to paper (as it were) and express so well experiences which we human beings go through. The whole of life is in the psalms which is why I have grown to love them through the years. Recognising their anguish, the author sets about encouraging the people. Verse 5 of today’s psalm puts this so well: “Restore again our fortunes, O Lord, as the river beds of the desert.” The river beds probably refer to the streams in the southern part of their country which become dry in the summer but, during the winter months, overflow with water. So he reminds the people in verses 6 and 7 that whilst they will have exhausted themselves ploughing and sowing, and fearful that the seed will not grow and produce a crop to feed them, there will be rain and all will be well. “Those who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy.”

Today is known in the Church as Passion Sunday and next Sunday will be Palm Sunday, when we remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, also marking the beginning of Holy Week. But from today we know we are getting closer to Good Friday when we recall that Jesus died on the cross. This is a sad period for Christians, a time to contemplate the last days of Jesus’ life as we have known it until now. This is the time to “sow in tears,” as the writer of Psalm 126 puts it, to pray and try and imagine the turmoil which Jesus must have gone through as he knew it was inevitable that he would die soon. You may find it helpful to reflect on the words of St. John’s Gospel, Chapter 12 verses 1-8, which is read in churches today. This is the beginning of the end and many tears were shed. But, with hindsight and faith, we also know that before too long we shall rejoice “with songs of joy.”

O give us faith to stay here, to wait, to watch and pray here,
and witness to your cry; in scarred and tearful faces,
in countless painful places, you give us hope that will not die.

[Last verse of the hymn “O Lord of our salvation” which is 513 in our hymn book: ‘Complete Anglican, Hymns Old & New’]