Of Airports, Hospitals, and Psalms


by Fr. John Oliver

An airport, a hospital, and the Book of Psalms - what do they have in common?  This occurred to me recently when I found myself inside all three within the span of few days.  I traveled by plane from Tennessee to Pennsylvania, and before I left on that trip I visited a woman in the hospital who had just given birth to her first child.  Shortly after that visit I was back at home, reading through a few Psalms in preparation for a talk I was to give.

First, the airport.  If you were to stroll around the airport, and observe the various places where travelers are dropped off and picked up, you would see a wide range of emotions expressed.  Sure, lots of people just move without much emotion at all.  But...over there is what looks like a wife dropping off her husband; he does not seem self-conscious about their embrace and she does not seem embarrassed by her tears.  She wipes her cheek as she gets back into the car, her man now lost in the crowd.

Further down is the father dropping off his teenage son; the body language of both is restrained and deliberate.  After all the boy's luggage is on the curb, each appears to look around for small distractions.  Finally, the father waves...at the son's back.

Inside the airport, two children cannot sit still while they appear to wait for someone.  Finally, the children's mother, now on tiptoes, raises her hand and waves wildly.  The children squeal as they see a woman - maybe in her sixties - pick up speed as she walks toward them, a few carry-on bags in her hands.  She sails past a security checkpoint, and the children hurl themselves at the woman's legs.  All four of them are laughter and spirals and loose bags now.

Finally, a young girl, black dress beneath black mascara, walks heavily toward the baggage carousel, her eyes not lifting from about five feet in front of her.  She's wearing earphones, and there is probably something playing on her i-pod that had a parental advisory sticker on its package.  Her face looks like it would crack if she smiled.

Yes indeed, an airport is a place to observe a broad display of human emotion.

Then, there is the hospital.  The woman I visited looked as if her face would crack if she had stopped smiling.  She was on the maternity floor, and carried that expression that often accompanies first-time moms.  You know the one:  one whole cup of joy mixed with one half-cup of shock.  But a few floors down, near the sliding exit doors, there is a man in a wheelchair, expressionless.  Walking behind him, her hands struggling upon the wheelchair handles, is a woman, slumped shoulders and obviously tired.  Peeking from the top of her handbag is a manila folder - test results, maybe.

Maternity wards, cancer wards, smiles and cries.  Yes, indeed, a hospital is a place to observe a broad display of human emotion.

Anger, fear, joy, confusion, delight, wonder, frustration, a hunger for meaning, a thirst for revenge - all these emotions, and more, are observable in the Book of Psalms.  The psalm writers did not choke down these very real emotions or pretend they did not exist.  Rather, they acknowledged their experiences, but, importantly, they acknowledged their experiences within the context of laying it out before God.

Because the psalms are inspired poetry, they unlock a door within us usually sealed off to texts of strict logic.  They are songs from the heart for the heart, and did not merely float down from the sky to maneuver the pen of a disinterested author.  The Psalms flow from life experience, and they flow in one direction - toward God, and not away from Him.  This is important, for it indicates that the emotions that sometimes drive us away from God - anger, for example, or desire - do not have to.  The full depth and breadth of the human experience is pliable in the hands of God.

Feeling anxiety over starting a new job?  Psalm 15 may be of comfort.  Threatened or afraid of someone in your life?  Offer Psalm 27.  Want to put your gratitude into words?  Read Psalm 145.  Searching for a poem of praise?  Sing Psalm 150.  Troubled over the state of your children?  Pray Psalm 139.  Feeling lost and alone as a child of God in a world in exile from Him?  Psalm 137 speaks to your restlessness.

"How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land," the author of Psalm 137 asks, openly frustrated over feeling very much in the world but very much not of it.  Judah had fallen to the Babylonians in 587 B.C., but this was no mere transfer of power.  Judah's capital city of Jerusalem was devastated, and most of its surviving population was carried off to Babylon.  Cut off from their homeland, the symbols of God's presence within their midst vanished.  The temple?  Gone.  The Ark of the Covenant?  Gone.  No king, no leader, no direction.  If everything that you have come to know were forcibly taken from you; if your connection with the homeland beneath your feet was severed; if a way of life seasoned by generations of faithful practice disappeared within days, what would you do?  I know what I would do:  sit down and weep.

"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.  We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it.  For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song, and those who plundered us requested mirth, saying, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.'  How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?"

Then, yearning for the safe and familiar peace of home, the author writes, "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill.  If I do not remember you let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth - if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy.  Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom the day of Jerusalem, who said, 'Raze it!  Raze it to its very foundation!'"

From violent displacement can erupt violent emotions.  Expressing his pain, and his desire for God to set things right in a way that would satisfy the rage of the displaced, the author concludes, "O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, happy the one who repays you as you have served us!  Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock!"  Such outbursts of vengeful frustration can be found in Psalms 35, 55, 56, 59, 69, and others.

Worship involves speaking the truth.  The truth of human emotion does not necessarily disqualify one from entering the courts of the Lord.  Job spoke his pain, Solomon spoke his despair, Jeremiah spoke his agony, and, of course, Our Lord Jesus spoke His humanity - "Let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not my will, but Thy will be done."  And to each, the Father was listening.

Tears of pain, tears of joy, both are shed on airport curbs, in hospital beds, and both fall from the pages of the prayerbook of the Church - the Book of Psalms.  We who fellowship with the Lord only in times of prosperity are only half-alive, if that.  If, however, we ever reach the state described in Psalm 38 - "I am troubled, I am bowed down greatly, I go mourning all the day long" - then we must find a way to bring God into our perpetual sorrow as deeply as we bring Him into our occasional joy.