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."

06 August 2012

Feeding Hungry Souls

John 6: 24-35

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost/ 5th August 2012

Let’s set the scene here.  Put the text in context. What we have here is Jesus’ well-known affirmation, “I am the bread of life.”  The occasion for this lesson is Jesus’ sign or miracle of feeding the five thousand, which we find earlier in the chapter. So impressed with this miracle, with his authority and power, the crowd presses in on him, ready to seize and “make him king,” (John 6:15), but Jesus withdrew to the mountains by himself.  The disciples took to the water, got into a boat, and sailed for Capernaum.  A strong windstorm appeared out of nowhere. They were terrified.  And if they weren’t terrified enough, they see Jesus walking on water toward them.  Jesus says, “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6:20). By the time they offer to take Jesus into the boat, they approach the shoreline.  The crowd well fed back in Tiberias soon realizes that the disciples and Jesus had left and that Jesus did not sail with the twelve because one of their boats behind. So they sail to Capernaum to find Jesus and say, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”  In other words, how did you get here?  Jesus replies, “Very truly, I tell you – honestly – I’ll tell you what you’re looking for.”

            Now, listen to the way Eugene Peterson captures the rest of the scene in his translation, picking up with verse 24: 

            Jesus answered, “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs – and for free.
“Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that.  Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides.  He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.”
            To that they said, “Well, what do we do then to get in on God’s works?”
            Jesus said, “Throw your lot in with the One that God has sent.  That kind of a commitment gets you in on God’s works.”
            They waffled:  “Why don’t you give us a clue about who you are, just a hint of what’s going on? When we see what’s up, we’ll commit ourselves. Show us what you can do. Moses fed our ancestors with bread in the desert. It says so in the Scriptures:  ‘he gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
            Jesus responded, “The real significance of that Scripture is not that Moses gave you bread from heaven but that my Father is right now offering you bread from heaven, the real bread.  The Bread of God came down out of heaven and is giving life to the world.”
            They jumped at that:  “Master, give us this bread, now and forever!”
Jesus said, “I am the Bread of life.  The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever.”[1]

            I share Peterson’s translation here from The Message because he helps us get to the heart of this text: human hunger.  The chapter begins with our hunger for food and ends with our hunger for God.  One leads to the other.  Jesus, the wise teacher, takes advantage of this teachable moment, of hungry, starving people, to help people realize there is a deeper hunger that we crave.  That Jesus has to use this occasion to make this point, because it’s not immediately evident, tells us something about the human condition that generally functions with a surface level of meaning and fails to go into the depths. 

            When Jesus plays with this metaphor, referring to himself as the “bread of life” you would think the hearers would make that shift, that they would realize he’s not talking literally about loaves and fish. But they don’t get it.  They see Jesus and hear Jesus, but do they really see Jesus and hear Jesus?  Then the religious leaders begin to complain when he says, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  John tells us that they muttered amongst themselves, “is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say” these things?" (John 6:42).  They don’t get it.

            So Jesus continues to teach them.  “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.  I am the bread of life.  Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for this life of the world is my flesh” (John 6: 47-5).  John tells us, “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (John 6:52). And so the conversation goes…. 

            Jesus is comfortable in the world of metaphor, symbol, analogy; they’re stuck in a concrete, literal, material world that can’t hear or even see the spiritual dimension of what Jesus is trying to get them to “see,” metaphorically speaking.  Later on, his disciples say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6:60).  And so it goes and so it goes.

            There are many directions we can go with this text, but it’s this exploration of human hunger that resonates so profoundly in our age.  The multitudes are fed, their bellies full, do they crave for more?  Is that why they’re following Jesus?  Because he fills their bellies – for free?  Is that why they listen to his teaching, because in the end they know they’re going to get fed?  Having something to eat, of course, is essential, especially if you’re among the peasant class and you worry where the next meal is going to come from.  Still, are they only interested in Jesus for what they will get out of him?  Because he’s “useful” to them, because he satisfies a want?  Are they really interested in who he is and what he’s trying to give them? Give us?

            And what about us?  In Dorothy Boulton’s sermon last week she explored the larger question of when is enough, enough?  How much is enough?  While it’s true that the vast majority of people in American society do not have to worry about when the next meal will come, it is not true that we have resolved the hunger problem, because it seems at times that our cravings are insatiable.[2]  We want more and more.  Have you ever considered just how large supermarkets have become – Wegmans, Whole Foods, Giant, Safeway – with aisles and aisles of food, of options, of choices. 

            Last year, my good friend, Lee Hinson-Hasty, who works in the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, lived in Debrecen, Hungary for a semester.  His wife, a theologian, received a Fulbright Fellowship to study and teach there.  Their entire family lived in Debrecen for the semester. Soon after he returned he posted a photograph on facebook. He went shopping at his local Target and was a little stunned by the experience.  He took a photo of just one aisle at theTarget, with shelves and shelves selling deodorant.  Really?  He was overwhelmed by it all.

            We don’t realize the extent of our excess as a nation.  And the level of our greed. We’re reluctant to talk about it.  At the General Assembly last month in Pittsburgh there was even reluctance for the church to name greed as a moral sin.  Our needs are dissociated from our wants.  As Dorothy said last week, “We are residents of a society that encourages us to consume more and more, we are victims of the insatiability that advertisers gleefully know and exploit.” 

            We want and want and want because we’re taught at a very young age to be consumers – it drives me nuts (to be personal here) to see supermarkets with child-sized push carts with little flags on them that say, “Consumers in Training.”  It’s cute, I know, but consider what that’s saying. We want more and more and more.  We want to make more and more so that we can have more and more.  And this hunger, this ravenous desire is driving us more than we like to admit.  To the point that it looks like as a society, looking at our society from the outside, that that’s all we were created to do and to be, to shop ‘til we drop.  For some, sadly, that’s all there is in their lives.  Even religion and faith can get caught up in this web of misplaced desire, when faith and belief are something you “have” or “want” because it will make one’s life better, or because you think God wants you to have all that bling and God wants you to be happy.  The prosperity gospel – which is not gospel (!) – is not far away.

            The way out of this mess—and it is a mess—is not to condemn materialism or try to become more spiritual or make one feel guilty for all our desires and wants and wishes or vow never to walk into a Target or Wegmans again.  Jesus doesn’t do this.  Desire isn’t bad, per se.  If you notice, Jesus doesn’t judge them for their desire. Desire is good.  A lot of good comes from desire.  We are all the offspring of desire!  Olympic medals are won by desire, hunger, and passion.  We saw this all week long at the Olympics in London.  You can see it on the faces of Nathan Adrian or Gabby Douglas and Michael Phelps (although some say Michael’s desire to win was not as strong as it was four years ago in Beijing).

            What Jesus warns against is misplaced desire.  Jesus doesn’t condemn hunger. Our insatiable hunger for food, our insatiable hunger for anything, you can fill in the blank – you know what they are – are really misplaced hungers for something deeper.  They are poor substitutes for what we really crave.  They are desires in need of redemption. The object of our unhealthy desires and cravings – things, people, substances, ideas – are all signs, symbols, expressions of our inability to connect, to have, to feed on what our souls are really looking for and that is God.  Our other hungers are misplaced hunger for God.  They are substitutes for what our souls really crave.  But when you’re lost in the world of materialism and consumerism, lost in the world of false hungers and poor substitutes, it’s difficult for us to remember or even know what our souls crave and what real food tastes, real bread tastes like.

            One of the most famous and insightful sentences in Christian history comes on the first page of St. Augustine’s (354-430) classic work, Confessions. Augustine’s memoir describes his journey of faith, of eventually coming to faith in Christ.  But before he gets there he described experience after experience of unfulfilled desire, including sexual desire. And his conclusion, found on the first page, was this:  “Thou has made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” 

            If he’s right – and I believe he is – then his insight can go a long way toward bringing us back to the heart of Christianity, the heart of the Christian life, to what matters most:  our relationship, our union with God.  It can help to correct the distorted and ultimately damaging assumption that the faith is all about laws and rules and God’s judgment.  What if we moved away from thinking about sin in terms of disobedience? Too many think of sin as doing something wrong, they of the Law, the Ten Commandments, of breaking a commandment, an act of disobedience to be judged by God as judge. What if, instead, we thought of sin not as disobedience, but sin as ceasing the hunger for God, of sin as not having a hunger for God.[3] It seems to me, so much hinges on that hunger.  We are hungry creatures.  Jesus says, hunger for God and we’ll never hunger again.  If our hunger for God isn’t satisfied by God, then we’ll be fed by false gods.

            Jesus comes and offers himself as the object of our soul’s desire.  Coming from God, reflecting the glory of God, embodying the image of God, Jesus says, feed on me, hunger for me, desire me and what you’ll find in me is a source of life that continues to give and give and give and can never be depleted.  He’s the bread of life, or better, he is the bread that gives life.  And the word for “life” here means more than just breathing or functioning, but being alive, with meaning, with purpose, with creativity, with generosity, all that ways that God is alive and the source of life. 

            Jesus comes and says hunger after me, not because he’s narcissistic or full of himself, he’s full of the life of God and knows that’s what we really need.  It’s in love that he says, feed on me.  Feeding on God is the diet our hungry souls crave.  We were made this way Jesus tells us; so don’t be surprised if everything else in the end will only disappoint us. 

            What if we had an Olympic-sized hunger for God?  Just imagine how different our lives would be, how different the world would be. What if we took some of the hunger and desire and cravings we have in other parts of our lives and directed them toward what our souls are really looking for?  Just imagine the difference it would make in the way we viewed the meaning and purpose of the Church, just imagine how it would shape all that we do in this congregation.  Just imagine the difference the church could make in the world.  Just imagine how this could shape our lives.  The deepest cravings of our souls can only be satisfied in God.

Image: I am the Bread of Life by Kennedy A. Paizs
[1] Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1993).
[2] See Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life (Other Press, 2012).
[3] Angel F. Méndez-Montoya, The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist  (John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 88.