29 August 2012

Singing God's Praise

Psalm 84

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ 26th August 2012

There’s an old phrase that’s been swimming around my head in conjunction with this text.  “He who sings well prays twice.”  Maybe Sue Krehbiel’s article about the new Presbyterian hymnal, found on the front page of the Messenger, triggered the quote.  She alludes to it in the title, “Praying Twice: Singing in Worship.”

St. Augustine (354-430) usually gets credit for this.  However, the Latin for this saying, Qui bene cantat bis orat, isn’t found in anything that has come down to us from the venerable doctor of the church.  Augustine did say, however, “cantare amantis est.”  “Singing belongs to the one who loves.”  We find this saying in one of his commentaries on the psalms where he discusses what’s involved in the singing in the psalms.  Listen to his words:  “For he who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyfully; he who sings praise, not only sings, but also loves Him whom he is singing about/to/for.  There is a praise-filled public proclamation in the praise of someone who is confessing/acknowledging (God), in the song of the lover (there is) love.”[1]

            “…in the song of the lover (there is) love.”  What Augustine is getting at here – the thing that is relevant to us here this morning, that helps us dive deeper into a song of praise like Psalm 84 – is that Augustine knew, like Israel before him, that when the object of our song is God, something happens to the song, and something happens to us.  When God is the focus of our singing, then something happens to our hymns and psalms, and then something happens to us.  When we offer songs of praise to God, it’s as if they’re transfigured in our singing, and God comes close to us.  “…in the song of the lover (there is) love.”  As one scholar put it, “Something happens so that the song itself becomes Love in its manifestation of love of the one who truly is Love itself.”  Sounds like a scholar, doesn’t it?  In other words, the lover is contained in the love song.  God is found in songs of praise to God.  When we sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19) to God, Sunday after Sunday, we are changed and are being changed.  They shape us and form us and reform us. So that the one who sings – and sings in love to God – prays twice.  In other words, our singing can become a more intense, concentrated, focused prayer, which causes our souls to rejoice.

            This is an amazing psalm or song of praise, 84.  It lifts up for us a profound understanding of what worship, of what praise is really all about.  To praise God is, in some way, to encounter God. To praise God is, to some extent, to meet God. And it’s the experience of meeting, of encountering of God, of dwelling with the presence of God that we find here.  This is, ultimately, what every human soul hungers for.  This is the deepest hunger of the human heart:  to rest, to be at home, to be united with and be in the presence of God.  Listen to the psalm again from the perspective of human desire:  “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!  My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.” 

            Can you hear it? Can you feel it?  That longing, that desire?  That feeling, that desire is the source of worship in the human experience.  Heart, soul, and body together yearn for the presence of God.  That’s the origin of worship. 

            When we’re in the courts of the LORD, the dwelling place of God – the temple, the church, the community of God’s people – there’s something about it that brings joy to our hearts.  The sparrow knows what home feels like.  The swallow knows where her nest is.  Human beings are created for the altars of God, to find our “home” there, to nest, to rest where God lives.  “Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.”

            Happy.  Happiness, the psalmist tells us can be found here.  In worship.  When our songs are focused upon God, we get a glimpse of God. When our worship is focused upon God, we get a glimpse of God.  When our souls yearn for the presence of God, something of God meets us in our souls.  That’s why worship is so critically important – it’s more than just “going to church.”  Theologically speaking, we don’t go to church; we are the church and when the church gathers it worships.  Perhaps we should stop using this language.  We don’t go to church; we are the church and when we gather we worship.  It’s the most essential thing that we do as a church.

            This psalm, like the others, also assumes that we worship in community, together, not alone.  The people of ancient Israel, as well as in Jesus’ age, had very different understandings of the self than we do today, we who are notoriously individualistic.  Yes, there would have been private prayers and worship in homes, but religious expression was primarily a communal experience.  Something profound and holy occurs when God’s people show up together to sing together, to pray together, share a meal together, listen for God’s Word together.   When the object, the focus of our worship is God, then something of God is reflected back upon the people, on all of us, and we’re all blessed for it.   We all share in it together. “Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.”  In the house of God....  “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.  I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.”

            Unfortunately, so many these days are finding their happiness elsewhere.  They are doorkeepers at other temples.  There is a deep cleavage between human desire and the object of that desire.  Religion, religious expression is alive and well in our age (even among the so-called atheists), because we human beings are religious creatures.  That’s why I believe religion will never die.  We were made to worship, we love to worship things, people, ideas, institutions, nations, sports teams.  We think that fulfilling these obsessions, “having” them will make us happy.  As we know, they won’t.  They become idols, false gods.  As John Calvin (1509-1564) said, human beings are idol factories.  We’re very good at it.  Knowing this is also why idolatry was considered such a threat for Israel, because they knew – as we need to always remember – we become what we worship.  So you better be aware of the idols or the false-gods in your life, because you will become to look and be like them. 

            The deepest hunger of the human heart can only be fed in God.  With worship attendance on the decline in American society and even more so in Europe, we have to ask ourselves what’s really going on?  Are we doing something wrong? Or, maybe we’re doing something right that leaves the masses, the majority at odds with who we are and what matters most to us.  Either way, the problem won’t be “fixed” by changing the styles of worship (contemporary vs. traditional, etc.) or coming up with other gimmicks and tricks to get people to worship.

            Perhaps a solution is found in verse 2 of the psalm.  It pretty much sums up what worship is all about.  I’m going to read it very slowly, as I read it, listen to the words, hang on the words, image the words, and be conscious of what you're feeling:

            My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD:
                        My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.

A lot hinges here upon the meaning of joy.  Without joy, worship becomes empty, hollow.  Without joy, our songs remain just songs instead of conduits of the Spirit.  It’s joy that calls us to worship.  It’s joy that rouses our hearts and souls and bodies to praise.  One of the Hebrew words for joy, Simhah, is not a feeling.  It’s more than a feeling.  As one scholar put it, "It is the reality, experience and manifestations of overwhelming gladness." When C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) tells us that when he moved from atheism to Christianity that he was “surprised by joy.”[2]  Joy is at the core of the faith and yet it’s difficult to articulate theologically.  You can’t teach joy.  It’s not a law; you can’t say, “Thou Shalt be Joyful!”  It has to come from the heart.  Either you are or you aren’t.  It’s not just an internal, emotional state; it also has an external component.  It causes us to act.  Singing, dancing, shouting, offering praises, prayer, feasting, celebration, service.  Joy flows from worship and leads us to service to worship to service to worship.  Joy is like grace yielding gratitude yielding grace.  And the Sabbath is made for joy.

            It’s joy that leads the psalmist to the courts of the Lord.  It’s joy that causes the psalmist to sing.  It’s joy for the Beloved that causes his soul to long and faint with desire.  That’s what calls us to worship. 

            But what if all of this leaves you empty and hollow?  Maybe something of the joy is missing in your life. Maybe joy seems far away.  No one is joyful 24/7.  Joy is more than a feeling; feelings come and go.  Sometimes we don’t feel like getting to the gym, but we know we’ll feel better after having gone.  Sometimes we don’t feel like worship, but once we get there we’re usually happier for it. Feelings have little to do with it all. 

            While I was away on vacation in New Mexico I took some time to go back to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine community that dwells deep in the Chama River canyon near Ghost Ranch (about an hour north of Santa Fe).  The days are marked by a lot of silence, but also a lot of song and praise.  They follow the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours, established by Benedict (c.480-543) in the sixth century, consisting of eight daily services beginning with Vigils at 4:00 a.m. (yes, 4:00 a.m.) and concluding with Compline around 7:30 p.m.  Although I’m generally not a morning person, I attended Vigils twice, which meant that I got up around around 3:40 a.m. to leave enough time to walk, in the dark, to the chapel.  The monks follow a strict liturgy and sing the psalms using Gregorian chant. Guests are invited to join them in singing antiphonally, one choir responding to the other.  Every week they chant the 150 psalms of the psalter.  Now, when I got up on those mornings, I have to say, honestly, that I didn’t feel like it.  I’m sure – I know – that the brothers don’t feel like being there every morning.  From the looks of some of them at 4 a.m., you can tell.  None of us looked good at that hour!  But they went.  I came up with all kinds of reasons for hitting the snooze button or ignoring the alarm altogether or excuses such as, “I’ll skip Vigils, but I’ll be there bright and early for Lauds,” which is at 6:00 a.m.  But I went.  I didn’t attend all eight services, but most on a given day.  I was there for three nights and almost four days. As I was slowly driving down the road toward Ghost Ranch, I could feel a difference.  The chant, the psalm, the praise, the prayer, the worship worked me over.  And there was joy – not ecstatic joy, but a deep gladness and profound gratitude to have that time to dwell in that holy place, to listen to the voice of my soul, and to connect with God.

            It’s the singing and the praising doing their work on us over time, week in and week out, that in time reveals the joy of our souls, that allow our joy to bubble up from within, and allows us to discover the object of our love, “…for in the song of the lover (there is) love.” In our worship we find God and find ourselves surprised by joy, again and again.

[1] Augustine, Enarratio in Psalmum 72, 1: CCL 39, 986 (PL 36, 914), cited on Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s website: http://wdtprs.com/blog/2006/02/st-augustine-he-who-sings-prays-twice/
[2] This is also the title given to his autobiography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955).  The title is an allusion to William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) poem, "Surprised By Joy — Impatient As The Wind."

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