Sometimes I will try to go to sleep. Please note, I said “try.” This might be taking a nap or going to bed at night. There are those times with an in-between level of awareness in which you’re not sure if you slept or not. At least, I have found that to be true with myself. Did I really make the plunge, or did I remain up in the waking world? If I have memory of a dream, then I know I was actually asleep.
Dreams themselves can be funny things. They can be crazy things, as I’m sure you all know. Throughout history, people have interpreted dreams in all manner of ways. People have derived messages and gained insights from them. That goes for me, too. I know I’m not alone in this, but I have had dreams which provided answers to some problems I had been mulling over. More than once, I have had ideas for a sermon come to me in the night, sometimes entire paragraphs.
The greatest dreams, in my opinion, are the ones impossible to put into words. They don’t demean themselves into petty things like solving problems. They’re too good for that. They’re too sublime. They’re too majestic. They fire the imagination. They are works of art.
Psalm 126 is one of those works of art. It is one of my favorite psalms—and I love a lot of the psalms.
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (v. 1). That first part can also read, “When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion.” What an awesome image. “We were like those who dream.” It had to be a dream! These were people who had been exiled to Babylon. They had been forcibly removed from their homes and sent marching on that long trail of tears. The world as they knew it had ended. And yet…
I love the Hebrew word for “dream”: חָלַם, chalam. It’s dreaming while asleep (last night, I dreamed I had the face of a horse). It’s dreaming for something in life (I’ve always dreamed of going to Alaska). It’s dreaming as a prophet (thus says the Lord).
I should add that prophets are not fortune tellers. Nine times out of ten (maybe more than that) their prophetic dreams are about the current situation the people face, rather than predicting the future. Having said that, we benefit from the messages they have given. We need them! And there are indeed foreshadowings of the Messiah. The New Testament has one or two, here and there.
The word chalam has another definition. It also means to be strong, to be robust. It refers to infants and livestock if they’re fat and plump. Poor bony creatures do not qualify as chalam. The Revised English Bible captures this nuance of “those who dream,” by saying “we were like people renewed in health.” Is it safe to say those who dream are healthy? Those who do not dream are unhealthy? They are not strong? They are not robust?
According to the psalmist, they need not worry about that, as we see in verse 2. “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’” They can’t control themselves. Their amazing reversal of fortunes demands response. “Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”
The word for “shouts of joy” is רׅנָּה, rinnah. It also appears in verses 5 and 6. It can also mean “singing” and “rejoicing.” What is their response to what the Lord has done for them? What is their response to be like those who dream? It’s singing; it’s joyful singing!
The Jews who have returned from exile can only ask, “How can we keep from singing?” It’s like the hymn which poses the question, “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock, I’m clinging / Since love prevails in heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?”
The psalmist does something interesting. It is affirmed, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.” And then there’s a transition. Acknowledging what’s been done, a request is added, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb” (vv. 3-4). (That’s the desert in southern Israel.) We’re moving from the past to looking to the future.
Lord, we ask you to make the streams flow in the desert. This isn’t the time to let us down! Don’t let our dreams turn to dust. We just got our singing voices warmed up! We were making beautiful music.
Still, maybe the psalmist understands the score. “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy” (v. 5).
What’s the deal with introducing this language of sowing and reaping? Maybe there is an understanding that joy must be grounded. Joy can’t simply be “just a dream.” It should be noted joy is not a mere emotion. It is a deep spiritual reality, even when we don’t feel elated. Quite clearly, there’s no guarantee that sowing the seeds will produce a good crop. Maybe the ground will not be receptive. Is it rocky? Is it sandy? Is it scorched by the sun, dry as a bone?
The image of sowing and reaping is a universal one, common to people throughout time. Jesus tells a story which begins, “Listen! A sower went out to sow” (Mk 4:1). How receptive are we to receiving that seed which is the word? Is our ground barren, rocky, filled with thorns? Do we need to benefit from that fresh water in the desert?
Or will our efforts end in tears?
Henri Nouwen speaks of the joy that emerges from sorrow. “Joys are hidden in sorrows! I know this from my own times of depression. I know it from living with people with mental handicaps.” He refers to his time after leaving his position as professor at Harvard Divinity School to live with the folks at L’Arche Daybreak in Ontario, a community for adults with intellectual disabilities.
“I know it from looking into the eyes of patients, and from being with the poorest of the poor. We keep forgetting this truth and become overwhelmed by our own darkness. We easily lose sight of our joys and speak of our sorrows as the only reality there is.”
[Some friendly folks at L'Arche Daybreak]
It really is too easy to focus on the negative. One way I notice this is when we take prayer requests. I think you will agree with me in saying the concerns usually outweigh the joys. We too readily overlook the blessings and celebrations in life. Please understand me. In absolutely no way am I suggesting we overlook or dismiss the very real struggles and sorrows among us. We all have burdens to bear, some much more than others.
I have a copy of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. There is a section devoted to Evening Prayer. There’s one in particular I frequently visit before going to sleep. (Yes, we’re back to sleep!)
“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.” (page 124)
I especially appreciate the request to “shield the joyous.” I find depths of meaning in that. Is it a plea for protection, lest the joyous too easily fall? Does it refer to the prayer’s concern for the sorrows immediately preceding the joy? Is it a shelter for the joyous prophetic dream of justice and peace? I imagine it is those and many other levels of awareness.
The psalmist concludes, “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (v. 6). That’s the story of bringing in the sheaves. “Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master, / Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves; / When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome, / We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”
How has our harvest been? How have our crops fared? Is our livestock chalam? Can we carry our sheaves with joy?
The psalmist would have us be dreamers. During this Advent, I think we are especially called to be dreamers. Howard Wallace reminds us that, in our call to be dreamers, we would be like “those whose lives are shaped not by the limits of our experiences but by the hidden reality of what God has already declared will be. It also leaves us with a tremendous sense of joy in ‘coming home’ as the Lord comes to us in the midst of the tears of this earthly experience.”
It’s not hard to see us in our own exile, of sorts. We might be weeping for a season. And yet… God gives us the promise of the advent, the coming, of our Lord Jesus Christ, who leads us through the desert of our journey.
We dreamed, and it was joy.