Can Our Nation Ever Rejoice Again?

I’ve been wondering lately whether it might ever be possible again for our nation to rejoice. Yes, you heard that right, rejoice. I know some folks will recoil with revulsion. This smacks of a patriotism that denies our enormous faults and shortcomings. We need deep, ongoing contrition, not self-praising. To rejoice as a nation also evokes the nasty sides of nationalism, something the Western world has agonizingly tried to shed since the horrifying carnage of WWII. That dangerous kind of nationalism is seared into the memory of our civilization. We don’t want to go there again.

I get all of that. To rejoice as a nation brings these risks. But I lived through the dramatic shift in the late 60s and 70s when we moved from rejoicing as a nation to an enduring self-doubt. Some of that soul-searching is good, but I find myself asking now whether it might be time to think about rejoicing together again?

These thoughts emerged for me this morning as I was reading Psalm 126. I was stunned with the radical suggestion that a nation could find laughter and joy in its streets again. This is a poem of exile and restoration. And we must be careful here not to grow too idealistic. As usual the Hebrew text is never simple. But the possibility of being restored as a people to health—and breaking out with laughter and joy and singing in the streets—well, this seems a breathtaking dream.

Here’s the way the Psalmist puts it:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like people renewed in health.
Our mouths were full of laughter
and our tongues sang aloud for joy.
Then among the nations it was said,
‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
Great things indeed the Lord did for us,
and we rejoiced.

Wouldn’t it be nice if “our mouths were full of laughter,” not the laughter of cynicism or brutal, degrading comedy, but laughter of joy? Wouldn’t it be marvelous to be “like people renewed in health,” not just personally, but as a nation? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Lord would return to our communities with restoring power? Could that possibly happen to a nation? Our nation?

I know I am on shaky theological ground, or at least complicated theological ground, but isn’t this the emerging vision of the kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven? Isn’t this what we are all working toward? Notice the poet proceeds with caution. Don’t become overconfident about this vision. The vision suddenly shifts into a plea that the Lord will eventually restore our good fortune. We’re not there yet. It will come as long as we learn how to follow the Lord’s way. That’s the condition for restoration. With humility, then, we must always confess we are not there yet.

And yet to dream, to hope, to go to work every day to make it happen. The Psalmist continues:

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
as streams return in the Negeb.
Those who sow in tears
will reap with songs of joy.
He who goes out weeping,
carrying his bag of seed,
will come back with songs of joy,
carrying home his sheaves.

The conditions are real, but the promise is full. There is plenty of sorrow to spread around, as we have been noticing. We must not forget the tears and the weeping. We must not forget when we have caused those tears and weeping. But as we go out carrying our bags of seed, we plant for new life. It’s hard work. The results are not certain. We plant even in the midst of great sorrow. But still, we can hope to “come back with songs of joy.” We will carry home the harvest. This is a vision of hope, of health, of renewal. This is the song of joy I long to sing.

I want to sing this song—not one of false patriotism or distorted nationalism—surely not forgetting the painful lessons of failures in our history—certainly not denying the need for contrition. But I desperately want for my people to be “renewed in health,” to carry home the sheaves together, to sow and to reap, all the while bowing humbly before the Lord who is the restorer. Sounds like a long shot for our day. But we are encouraged, we who read scripture like this Psalm, to carry out our bag of seeds, to bow humbly, all the while looking toward the time of harvest. The dream is that our mouths will once again be full of laughter, our tongues singing aloud for joy.