First off – what’s this “longest night” thing?
Well, the “longest night” is exactly as it says. It’s the longest night of the year but there are some churches, and traditions, that participate in a “longest night” service (as we are here at Immanuel) where we acknowledge the pain, grief, and sadness that many of our brothers and sisters are going through and a night made “longer” just means our pain, sadness, and grief is made longer too. And the difficulty of this season for many people is that we’re told, and feel, that because it’s the holidays we have to be bright, cheery, and happy. Well, a “longest night” service allows the space of our true feelings to be given… space.
Now, with that being said, and the context behind this post, let’s read Psalm 100 (which I have for us below):
1 Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. 2 Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. 3 Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. 4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. 5 For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.
When we read the psalms we get a glimpse into the past. A glimpse into what a life with God looks like from the standpoint of the Israelites. From the ups and downs, the fears and joys…to songs that sing of all of those emotional rollercoasters throughout life and so much more. Because psalms are about an authentic relationship with God – in all its glory and splendor…fear and trembling, emotional “all overs”, anger, frustrations, and praises. So where does Psalm 100 fit…and why did I pick it for this reflection?
When we look at this extremely short psalm, we first see that this is a psalm for giving “grateful praise.” Not just praise, not just joy, but giving GRATEFUL praise as this psalm most likely would have been used in the temple to give praise to God. So, while sacrifices were being made, while thankfulness was being offered up…this psalm, and songs in general, would have been sung BECAUSE of what those sacrifices meant – not only to God but to the people. For the work God did, for the acceptance of he gift of sacrifice, and for the work God was doing in this relationship. So this…in essence, becomes an act of worship. Eliciting joy and gratefulness for what all God has done for the individual as well as the people of God.
The psalmist writes, “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth!” Not just you as you come to worship, but all the birds of the air and beasts of the field along with the fish in the sea! Why? Because the Lord God made them all. He not only made them but he created the space they live and breathe in. Every square inch of what we see – God made by the beauty and glory of his hands. It is “God who made us, and we are his, we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”
If we declare that the Lord is our Shepherd then we must declare that he is watchful and mindful of us and that he leads us and guides us by his staff and rod (Psalm 23). And we also affirm that lush meadows stand around us, streams of living water flow calmly before us and that this great Shepherd invites us to rest and drink by Him, with Him and IN Him. But how?
This seems easy and good when things are easy and good – but how does one do that when things aren’t “easy” and good? How does one do this when someone you love dies? How does one do that when you’re unable to say goodbye to someone you love? How does one “enter the gates of the Lord with thanksgiving” when your heart is heavy, your feet don’t seem to want to hold your weight to stand and all you want to do is anything BUT find joy? How does one declare that the Lord is good and that his love endures forever, that he is faithful, in the midst of sorrow? During this time of Advent when we’re told to be happy and hopeful how does one do that when you’ve lost a job, when you’re fighting to make ends meet, or you’re simply grieving right now. How are you to enter with thanksgiving when you feel lost, sad, tired, or…let’s be honest…you just don’t want to. The very LAST thing you want to do is sing happy and joyous songs?
The problem is that we have images and understandings and ways we feel thanksgiving should look like. We have emotions and thoughts on what proper worship, in general, looks like. We have been raised and “churched” to say that this is proper this is not, and then life hits – and it hits at the most inopportune time…and we’re now supposed to put on a mask, hide your honest feelings, and be something we are not. Why? Because that’s what we do – and apparently it’s better to fake it than to honestly be where we are. So we sing the happy songs, put on a smile, decorate with tinsel and lights, presents and cinnamony-spicey smells and do all the things others expect – all the while inside we are broken, in turmoil, in grief and sadness. Wanting to express where we really are – it doesn’t seem to fit with the way people want us to be. So all the things that help make this part of the year so bright and hopeful and Christmassy…really make it hurt that… much…more. Because we don’t want to feel those feelings – or we WANT to but we can’t because there’s a deep sadness that is raw, and revolving. Sometimes it’s a grief that comes every year because Christmas reminds us of something, or someone, meaningful or even harmful.
Music is a huge part of my life – and my families. Playing it, singing it, experiencing it…and our family is full of musicians… and so I can’t help but think about music during this time. And the beautiful thing about music is that when we sing… it doesn’t have to be joyful all the time…especially when we sing unto the Lord. I think we often times feel that songs of “gratitude” and “gratefulness” and “thankfulness” must be songs that are uplifting and joyous in heart – but that isn’t necessarily true. Songs unto the Lord come out of moments where we understand who we are, what is going on around us…and we give praise unto our protector, provider, our comforter and peace…our Lord and Savior – all the while understanding that that praise may or may not change the feelings we have going on inside of us. So they can be songs of lament as we are in pain and grief, those can be songs of sorrow, they can be songs of joy and giving thanks in all circumstances and in all moments – but nowhere are we ever told that those songs must be peppy and uplifting and always happy and declare that they are something separate than what we actually feel. Thanksgiving, singing, and doing so WHILE in our grief and sorrow allows us to express our feelings, set aside the merriment that’s expected, and declare that we long for God in every expression of the thought.
- Long for his restoration,
- long for his peace,
- long for his hope,
- long for the brokenness to go away,
- long for the joy to return,
- long for HIM to come and just fix and remove all this that hurts!
I appreciate how one author writes that, We are invited to remember that in the long, sometimes dark, wait for redemption, he will be faithful. And I think that’s important for us as we come to sit in this Longest Night…that even here, in all circumstances, in joy and grief, in sadness and deflation – that we can give thanks to God – and we recognize that even in our “Thanks” it looks and feels different then some peppy, smiling, joyous moment that we’d like it to be – but it isn’t…and so we’re tired of “faking it” till we make it. We’re tired of declaring the very thing we are not right now. Giving thanks to the Lord of lords, the King of kings who not only made us and declares that we are his (as the psalmist declares) but Paul says in Ephes 2:10 that we were created in Christ Jesus – which means that we become part of Him and for Him – and a major part of that is recognizing the very truth of WHY he came! To take away the sadness, the grief, the despair and to bring us to a place of hope and joy – a hope and joy that WILL COME eventually even if right now if seems long off.
But here’s the thing about music – music that is sung in reflection, in sadness, in hope, in grief, in all the emotions that can befall us…it can all be an opportunity for thanksgiving if we allow the honest space to happen. During Christmas we want to do heralding and proclaiming the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. A time of the year to find joy and peace in his salvation. The time of year where we are reminded in the exact reason for Christ coming to this earth: to bring a song back into our hearts. To give us hope in the midst of pain and suffering. To redeem what was lost. A time of year that WE know will change in about 2-3 months when our joy of birth comes to pain of death – but again, a joy we find and know BECAUSE OF WHAT THAT MEANS for you and I…that there is hope just beyond today.
Psalm 100 is a good reminder that through it all – we are his. That he made us, sustains us, protects us, leads us, and guides us – through the good and the bad, the times of joy and the times of sorrow. That we can offer times of thanksgiving and praise all the while experiencing grief – that’s why funerals are so important. It’s a moment to grieve lost love…and yet celebrate the gift of life through Christ. So we come, singing in the midst of sadness. Not because people tell us to, not because it’s what we must do during the Christmas season, but we sing and give thanks in the midst of sadness because that’s what we do when we acknowledge the Lord of life, the Redeemer, and Restorer.
We sing with sorrow
We sing with grief
We sing with pain and maybe as tears stream down our cheeks and yet in those feelings and emotions we sing with hope that one day it’ll all be taken away and love, laughter, life, and no suffering or pain or darkness will ever enter again. But until that day should come, we offer up to God, to the one who restores and heals, we offer up our song of Thanksgiving and praise – even through the flood of tears and the raw unhealed and open-wounded emotions.