Tuned for Praise: Word Made Flesh

 

Read:

Have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8, NRSV).

When was the last time you read through the instructions for the Tabernacle in Exodus 25 through 31?

I think it’s safe to say that this section of the Bible is unexplored territory for most of us. And while this section of the Old Testament may never be a devotional classic for Christians, there are some startling truths tucked into this ancient instruction manual.

One of these has to do with God’s insistence that the holy heart of this structure be covered with animal skins—goat’s hair, rams’ skins, and fine leather to be exact (Ex. 26:7 & 14).

My colleague, Tom Boogaart, was the one who first alerted me to the theological significance of this detail. The holy place that houses the ark of the covenant—that “mercy seat” upon which God is symbolically enthroned—is to be covered with skin.

We might be forgiven for missing the significance of this detail if we’re reading these verses in the middle of July. But if we’re reading during the Advent or Christmas seasons, it’s harder to miss the canonical echoes ricocheting between the testaments. John 1:14 makes the echo explicit, announcing that “the Word became flesh and lived [literally “tabernacled”] among us.”

The irony in the Old Testament context is that, just as God is making plans to dwell among the covenant people in a more tangible way, the people are down at the foot of the mountain making a golden calf. When they stand back to admire their artwork, they announce, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Ex. 32:4). Of all the nerve! We cry, offended by their effrontery. Before we get too far up on our high horse, however, we might want to reflect on our own tendency to follow the wrong gods home.

God is offended, too, and threatens to wipe out these ingrates and start over with Moses. But Moses talks God down, and to make a long story short, the Tabernacle does eventually get built. It becomes the place where the covenant people can experience God’s holy presence in a tangible way—God clothed in flesh, as it were.

There is something essentially shocking about the incarnation. Frederick Buechner helps us to appreciate this when he describes it as “Ultimate Mystery, born with a skull you could crush one handed” (from Whistling in the Dark).

But spare a thought, this Christmas, for the Tabernacle’s instruction manual. It hints at an important habit of God’s heart—that is—God’s longing to “dwell” with us in a tangible way. Maybe with the Tabernacle fresh in our minds, we will be just a little less surprised when John tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

Listen:  O Nata Lux. This text (translated below) is often associated with the Feast of Transfiguration. Its reference to being “clothed in flesh,” however, makes it a rich meditation on the incarnation. The composer of this setting is Morten Lauridsen; the performance is by the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

Translation & Prayer:

O Light born of Light,
Jesus, redeemer of the world,
with loving-kindness deign to receive
suppliant praise and prayer.

Thou who once deigned to be clothed in flesh
for the sake of the lost,
grant us to be members
of thy blessed body.

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: With a Love Like That

 

Read: Luke 15:11-32

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him (Luke 15:20, NRSV).

Sometimes love can stop you in your tracks.

That’s what happens to me when I read the parable of the prodigal son. People have rightly pointed out that it is the father in this story who is, in fact, “prodigal.” He lavishes his love on not one, but two calculating offspring. The younger brother can’t wait for his dad to die, squandering his inheritance on short-term gains. Then the older brother pitches a fit when Dad decides to let bygones be bygones. What a pair!

Part of me wants to write “Part Two” of this parable. In the sequel we would find out whether the sons learned anything from watching their father’s application of what we might call “new math.” It was a way of calculating that multiplied and divided everything by love.

New math seems to be a motif in all three of the stories in Luke 15. The lost sheep and the lost coin were, in fact, practice sessions for the parable of the prodigal father. All three stories must have had the Pharisees fuming. But the tax collectors in the crowd must have smiled to themselves (see Luke 15:1-2). Jesus clearly wasn’t very good at math….

I thought of this story in choir rehearsal the other day. We were singing Dan Forrest’s exquisite suite for chorus and orchestra, Lux: The Dawn From on High. It was the third movement that stopped me in my tracks.

After the second movement’s insistent proclamation of John 1:5 (“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”), Forrest continues with these words from a poem by Daniel Ladinsky:

Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth, “You owe me.”

Look what happens with a love like that.

It lights the whole sky.

This week we begin another journey through Advent. As the days grow shorter and the news grows darker, turn toward “love like that” wherever you find it—love that doesn’t get lost in careful calculations. It’s a love that will light the whole sky.

Listen:  The Sun Never Says

Pray: Help us to reflect your prodigal love.

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: No Quid Pro Quo

 

We continue the “Tuned for Praise” series with three hymns on healing.

This is the third of those three reflections.

 

Read: Job 42:7-17

After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations (Job 42:16, NRSV).

Contrary to popular belief, the book of Job does not have a happy ending.

Oh, I know that Job ends up with twice as much stuff as he had before and a whole new set of children. But are we meant to believe that life was ever really the same for him after his 42-chapter ordeal?

My young daughter, Ellen, made me feel the sharp end of this point once. I had just finished reading the ending to book of Job to her and her brother, Andy. Afterwards, she sat very still for a moment. Then she asked, “Mom, if Andy and I died and you and Dad got NEW kids—would that make it OK?”

No. It would not be OK. It would never be OK.

Her question sent me back to the end of Job’s story with some questions of my own:

  • What was it like for Job to risk living and loving again once he knew that he could lose it all at any moment?
  • How could he find the courage to serve God once he knew that faithfulness did not guarantee health, wealth, and happiness?

Though we can’t ask Job directly, there are certain clues to how he might respond to these questions in the details of the text itself. He prays for his so-called friends. He throws a big party and gives gifts to his siblings—even though they had been noticeably absent during his ordeal. He gives frivolous names to his new daughters (Dove, Cinnamon, and Eye-Shadow)—and then flaunts all convention by naming them in the will along with their brothers.

If we expected Job to be bitter, fearful, or suicidal—we have another thing coming. This is a man who knows how to throw a party. This is a man who seems to have decided to serve God even if there isn’t anything in it for him. This is a man who has learned to live without all the answers.

I like to imagine Job singing the hymn, “O God Beyond All Praising.” I picture him singing with his head thrown back and a smile on his face. The references to Christ in verse two would puzzle him, but if we told him the story, it probably wouldn’t surprise him to learn the lengths to which God was willing to go to make things right. And when he got to verse three there might be tears on his cheeks, but he’d sing all the louder. Because who would know better than Job that “whether our tomorrows be filled with good or ill, we’ll triumph through our sorrows and rise to bless you still”?

Listen:  O God Beyond All Praising– This hymn text by Michael Perry is here set to the tune THAXTED by Gustav Holst. You may recognize this tune as the triumphant theme of the Jupiter movement from his suite, The Planets. This arrangement for choir and orchestra is by Richard Proulx and is available from GIA Publications.

Pray: “Whether our tomorrows be filled with good or ill, we’ll triumph through our sorrows and rise to bless you still.” Thy will be done.

From v. 3 of Michael Perry’s “O God Beyond All Praising.”

 

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: When Memory Fades

 

We continue the “Tuned for Praise” series with three hymns on healing.

This is the second of those three reflections.

Read: Psalm 77

I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your ways of old. (Psalm 77:11, NRSV)

Memory. It lays the foundation for so much of our faith.

At the last supper, Jesus enjoins the disciples to “do this in remembrance of me.” In so many of the psalms, memories of God’s past faithfulness are the basis for present hope.

This seems to be the logic that lies behind Psalm 77. Yet, there is a twist at the center of this psalm that makes it especially valuable for the care of souls—especially those souls who feel betrayed by their own memories.

The psalmist’s distress could not be more real. “I cry aloud to God,” she admits at the outset. “My soul refuses to be comforted.” But as she continues to describe her distress, she departs from the usual pattern. For this psalmist, memories of God’s past faithfulness are tinged with more pain than pleasure. It’s the very contrast between past blessing and present pain that she finds so galling. When she “consider(s) the days of old, and remember(s) the years of long ago,” she is confronted with a litany of agonizing questions:

Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?

Has his steadfast love ceased forever?

Are his promises at an end for all time?

Has God forgotten to be gracious?

Has he in anger shut up his compassion?

It is at this point that she comes to a bitter conclusion: “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

If the psalm ended there, it would still be useful for the care of souls. It is no small thing, after all, to help us find words for our fears, our doubts, and our grief.

But the psalm goes on in a way that makes one wonder if A) the psalmist came back later and wrote the ending, or B) the psalmist was surrounded by a community of faith that was able to bear her up when her own strength was spent. There is no way to know for sure, of course, but I think I’m leaning toward the latter.

I think of Psalm 77 whenever I sing what has become one of my favorite contemporary hymns, “When Memory Fades.” Mary Louse Bringle wrote the words for a friend whose mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Like the psalm, this hymn faces fear and pain with uncommon courage. And then it surrounds both primary and secondary sufferers with prayers to the God who will always remember us.

As you listen, let the words bear you up even if your own strength is spent.

Listen:  When Memory Fades – This hymn text by Mary Louise Bringle is here set to a tune by Jane Southwick Cool. The arrangement is by Eric Nelson. It is sung by the St. Olaf Choir, Anton Armstrong, conductor. In some newer hymnals, the text is also set to the familiar tune, FINLANDIA, by Jean Sibelius.

Pray: “When memory fades, and recognition falters, when eyes we love grow dim, and minds confused—speak to our souls of love that never alters; speak to our hearts, by pain and fear abused. O God of life and healing peace, empower us with patient courage by your grace infused.”

From v. 1 of Mary Louise Bringle’s “When Memory Fades.”

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: We Cannot Measure How You Heal

We continue the “Tuned for Praise” series with three hymns on healing.

This is the first of those three reflections.

 

Read: Luke 5:17-26

Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. (Luke 5: 18-19, NRSV)

I once knew a woman whose spirit had been twisted by a bitter divorce. Decades later she was diagnosed with colon cancer. Faithful friends gathered around her to pray for her healing. Much to everyone’s surprise, God answered those prayers by healing her spirit instead of her body. She eventually died of the colon cancer, but she lived her last months suffused with gratitude and joy. It was, by any measure, a miracle.

It’s hard not to think of that woman when I read this story from Luke. It is also found in Mark 2 and Matthew 9, but in all the versions, the friends play an important role. Their determination to get their friend to Jesus is nothing short of heroic. This in itself is an answer to prayer. Not everyone is blessed with friends like these, after all. Their intervention serves as an inspiration to all of us who aspire to bring those we love to the throne of grace.

But this brings us to the matter of the man on the stretcher. The narrator describes him as “paralyzed,” but Jesus’ first instinct is to heal his spirit and not his body. “Friend, your sins are forgiven you,” he says when the man interrupts the lesson plan by descending from the ceiling. Granted, people of that day assumed that physical illness was directly related to physical infirmity—i.e.—they assumed that he must have done something to deserve this. But I wonder if Jesus’ words reflect a more complicated triage of the man’s needs. We have no way of knowing, of course, but the story leaves room to wonder if the man’s need for spiritual healing is even more pressing than his need for physical healing.

In any case, the Pharisees blow a gasket and accuse Jesus of blasphemy. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” they fume.

It’s at this point that Jesus tells the man to get up and go home. He does—which gives the Pharisees even more to think about.

To listen to some people, praying for healing is as simple as walking up to the Divine Vending Machine, putting your faith in the slot, and waiting for God to deliver according to what button you press. There are many problems with this approach, not the least of which is what happens when God does not deliver. When that happens, we conclude that the problem is either God’s (not enough power) or ours (not enough faith).

Maybe that’s why I appreciate the words to John L. Bell’s hymn so much. “We cannot measure how you heal,” it acknowledges, “or answer every sufferer’s prayer; yet we believe your grace responds where faith and doubt unite to care.” God’s love and response are what we can count on, even though God may respond in ways we do not expect.

As you listen to this recording of Bell’s hymn, open your own spirit to all of the ways God heals. And whether you find yourself carrying someone else’s stretcher or yourself being lowered down in front of Jesus, remember that we cannot measure how God heals.

Listen:  We Cannot Measure How You Heal – The words to this hymn are by John L. Bell; the tune is a traditional Scottish folk song, YE BANKS AND BRAES. The recording is by the Cathedral Singers.

Pray: “Lord, let your Spirit meet us here to mend the body, mind, and soul—to disentangle peace from pain, and make your broken people whole.”

From v. 3 of John L. Bell’s “We Cannot Measure How You Heal”

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: Light Eternal

 

 

Read:

Therefore I say to you, O nations that hear and understand, “Wait for your shepherd; he will give you everlasting rest, because he who will come at the end of the age is close at hand. Be ready for the rewards of the kingdom, because perpetual light will shine on you forevermore.    (2 Esdras 2:34-35, NRSV)

These verses hail from the Apocrypha, those “hidden writings” which, while not accepted with the full authority of Scripture by the Reformers, were nonetheless regarded as “useful and good to read” (Martin Luther). The Belgic Confession (1561) suggests that “the church may certainly read these books and learn from them as far as they agree with the canonical books.” So, hearing nothing in these verses from 2 Esdras that is out of harmony with the rest of Scripture, we will take the Reformers at their word and read these verses for all they are worth.

Harpists will testify to the fact that plucking one string causes related strings to vibrate. Similarly, plucking this verse from 2 Esdras causes other canonical strings to vibrate in sympathy. The shepherd reference, of course, sets Psalm 23 and John 10 to humming. But the reference to rest calls to mind this passage from Revelation 14:12-13—

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments

of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus. And I heard a voice from Heaven saying,

“Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the

Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.”

Finally, we hear echoes of Revelation 22:5 in these verses as well:

And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord

God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

As I wrote this reflections, I got the news of the death of Frank Gibson. Frank served for many years as the executive director of the American Waldensian Society, and was beloved on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean for his kindness, good humor, and commitment to justice. Although he would never have claimed to be a “saint” in the conventional sense, I could not help but think how appropriate it was that he heard the Good Shepherd calling him into light perpetual on All Saints’ Day.

If ever there was a piece of music that captures the warmth and assurance of verses like these, it is Edward Elgar’s “Lux Aeterna.” As you listen to it, call to mind the life and memory of a dear one who has died. Remember them with gratitude, and entrust them to the Shepherd who led them through the valley of the shadow and into light eternal.

Listen:  Edward Elgar’s Lux Aeterna (Voces 8)

Pray: May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord, with Thy saints forever, for Thou art kind. Eternal rest give to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: Refuge

Read: Psalm 46

Be still, and know that I am God! (Psalm 46:10a, NRSV).

“It will be all right.”

That’s what we tell our kids. It’s what our parents told us, so we assume it must be true. Except that maybe it isn’t. Between the literal storms of climate change and the metaphorical storms of politics, that time-tested reassurance is starting to feel more and more like a lie.

On a good day, I take refuge in Romans 14:8 and am reminded that “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” So, in that sense, it really will be “all right.” But on a bad day, I find a different sort of refuge in Psalm 46.

Part of this psalm’s appeal is its “misery loves company” quotient. The psalmist’s world is going to hell in ways that sound eerily familiar. Chaos is encroaching in both the natural and the political spheres.

This is harder to track when we’re reading the psalm in English. In Hebrew, the sea is roaring and the mountains are slipping. Then politics takes a turn, and the nations start roaring and the kingdoms start slipping. See what I mean about misery loving company? If we didn’t know better, we’d think this psalmist had a subscription to The New York Times.

In the center of these storms, however, is a still point. “There is a river,” the psalmist says, “whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.” Unlike the roaring seas outside, this river is life-giving. God’s presence inside the city means that it will NOT slip. Peace is possible precisely because God is with us, and God is our refuge.

Martin Luther was no stranger to chaos, so it’s not surprising that he chose this psalm as the inspiration for his hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” As you listen to it, however, remember the stillness at the center of the psalm. It is only possible because God is equal to keeping all kinds of chaos at bay.

The last section of the psalm underscores this. Look around, it says. This is the God who can calm the storm. This is the God who is with us. This is the God who is our refuge. Your fear is real, but remember whose love and strength surrounds you.

So, “be still and know that I am God.” Not in the sense of “doing nothing,” but in the sense of being at peace in the midst of whatever comes.

Be still. Be still. It really will be all right.

 

Listen:  J.S. Bach “Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott”

and/or

Be Still and Know (John L. Bell)

 

Pray: Visit us with thy salvation; enter every trembling heart. Help us to be still and trust that your love and strength surround us.

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: Leaning Toward the Light

Read: Revelation 22:1-7

…And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light… (Rev. 22:5, NRSV).

At first glance, the prospect of perpetual light does not strike me as a good thing. I enjoy that delicious darkness when the last lamp is extinguished and my tired eyes can call it a day.

I doubt this is what the writer of Revelation had in mind, however, so a second glance is probably warranted.

By the time we get to the last chapter of Revelation, we are ready for a little light. It has been a long, hard slog through dragons, plagues, and pestilence. We are more than ready to say goodbye to the four horsemen and their scary steeds, to say nothing of Mother Babylon getting tipsy on the blood of the saints. To be honest, even Jesus makes us nervous when he is described as “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes” (Rev. 5:6).

It is a dark book, to be sure. But it is that very darkness that makes us lean hard toward the light.

Though it is not entirely clear who the original recipients of this book were, it seems obvious that they were familiar with suffering. Revelation 6:9 makes reference to “the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given.” Given this, one suspects they would not have had much patience with an apocalypse that depicted reality with the rosy glow of a Thomas Kinkade painting. To borrow a line from the Gospel of John, these people needed to know that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

One of my favorite musical settings of these words from Revelation is the Paul Manz motet, “E’en So, Lord, Quickly Come.” The music captures both the longing and the light, and when I read more about the story behind the song, I understood why.

Paul’s wife, Ruth, was keeping vigil at their 3-year-old son’s bedside, praying for a miracle. During one particularly difficult stretch when hope seemed scarce, she penned a poem based on Revelation 22:1-7. Later, she admitted, “I think we’d reached the point where we felt that time was certainly running out, so we committed it to the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus quickly come.’” That poem became the inspiration for her husband Paul’s anthem, which continues to inspire people to this day. Among them is the son who surprised all his doctors by recovering.*

It is no small thing to lean toward the light, especially when darkness seems to be swallowing us whole. But this passage from Revelation urges us to do just that. And it points to a day when all creation will be bathed in perpetual light.

I think I understand now why that will be a good thing. A very good thing.

 

Listen:  E’en So, Lord, Quickly Come – Paul Manz

 

 

Pray: Help our hearts to unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.

From “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” word by Henry Van Dyke

 

*Details of the story behind Paul and Ruth Manz’ anthem are taken from this December 21, 2004 article by Dan Olson of Minnesota Public Radio: Christmas Hymn Born Out of Anguish.

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: Child Sacrifice

Read: Jeremiah 19:1-13

…they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind (Jer. 19:4b-5, NRSV).

Most people do not consider Baal much of a problem. If they know his name at all, it’s in reference to some dusty Old Testament idol, with which we no longer need to be concerned.

The prophet Jeremiah is clearly concerned, however, and on closer inspection, this passage may be more relevant than we realize. Here is a case in point.

I recently had the opportunity to listen to a lecture by Dr. Leah Gunning Francis, author of Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2015). Dr. Gunning Francis gave a moving testimony of the days and weeks of protest that followed the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr., a young black man shot and killed by police officer, Darren Wilson, in August 2014. Of all her accounts, however, there was one that I found particularly telling.

Some time after the shooting, the Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church of East St. Louis decided to sponsor a “toy gun buy back.” Their invitation read: “Parents and children are invited to exchange violent toys for nonviolent ones and enjoy food, music and fun activities for children and youth.” The rationale for the event was expressed in this straightforward quote from the pastor of the church, Rev. Rodney T. Francis (Leah Gunning Francis’ husband): “The goal is to spark meaningful conversations about the culture of violence and change the ways kids engage in dramatic play by replacing violent toys and video games with non-violent ones.”

The invitation was a simple but powerful response to the congregation’s question: “What can we do?” But no one could have anticipated the backlash that the church and its leaders received in the wake of their invitation. With the cruel efficiency with which social media excels, the church was soon inundated with threatening emails and posts. Some people, it seems, saw a toy gun buy-back as a threat to their second amendment right to bear arms. That perceived threat was all the excuse they needed to threaten others.

I listened to this testimony in stunned disbelief—which demonstrates nothing so much as my own naiveté, I suppose. But I also listened carefully to Dr. Gunning Francis’ call to examine our culture’s idols. The religious zeal sparked by a toy gun buy back may well be symptomatic of a form of idolatry that is alive and well—especially in North American culture.

When we read Jeremiah’s description of people who offer up their own children to a false god, we react in horror. We can’t back away fast enough, eager to distance ourselves from the pagan practices of a distant and benighted age.

Yet, I wonder if we are as distant from this indictment as we assume. According to the PEW Research Center, over 39,000 people in the U.S. died gun-related deaths in 2017. At this writing, there have been 21 deadly mass shootings in in the U.S. in 2019 alone, with the body count at 124. Names like Orlando, Las Vegas, El Paso, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Columbine, Stoneman Douglas, and Charleston toll like church bells in our collective memory. There are so many mass shootings, we can’t even keep them all straight.

Why is it so hard to see ourselves in Jeremiah’s indictment? Why is it so hard to recognize that our own land is stained with the blood of the innocent?

Listen:  There is a Place-by John L. Bell

This unforgettable anthem was written as a pastoral response to the mass shooting at Dunblane Primary School in Scotland on March 13, 1996 where 16 children and their teacher were murdered. It is published by GIA Publications, and this recording is from the CD, The Last Journey: Reflections for the Time of Grieving. Here are the words to the anthem:

 

There is a place prepared for little children
Those we once lived for, those we deeply mourn,
Those who from play, from learning and from laughter
Cruelly were torn.

There is a place where hands which held ours tightly
Now are released beyond all hurt and fear
Healed by that love which also feels our sorrow
Tear after tear.

There is a place where all the lost potential
Yields its full promise, finds its lost intent;
Silenced no more, young voices echo freely
As they were meant.

There is a place where God will hear our questions,
Suffer our anger, share our speechless grief.
Gently repair the innocence of loving
And of belief.

Jesus, who bids us to be like little children
Shields those our arms are yearning to embrace,
God will ensure that all are reunited;
There is a place.

Prayer: Hear our questions. Suffer our anger. Share our speechless grief. Gently repair the innocence of loving and of belief. But as you do all these things, help us to examine ourselves as individuals and as a culture so that we might find ways to stem this tide of senseless slaughter.

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: A Place in the Choir

 

Read: Psalm 148 (Suggestion: Read this psalm while listening to Jupiter by Gustav Holst)

Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created (Psalm 148:5, NRSV).

Question: When is the best time to plant a tree?

Answer: Twenty years ago.

Question: When is the next best time to plant a tree?

Answer: Now.

This Q & A comes from Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 30-31). The wisdom of the answers seems self-evident. But Powers’ novel points out that human beings are not always good at recognizing the obvious. Later in the book, one of the characters—a psychology professor—observes that, “You can’t see what you don’t understand. But what you think you already understand, you’ll fail to notice” (p. 439).

The author of Psalm 148 wants us to understand the world in a new way. If we accept that invitation, it’s very possible we will see the world with very different eyes.

The first thing to notice about this psalm is that it is a great big call to worship. That’s nothing new, especially in the psalms. But look closely at who is in the congregation. When we take attendance, we see a catalogue of all creation. It includes stars, sea monsters, stormy winds, cedars and finally, human beings. While one could argue that the psalmist saves the best for last, there’s no real evidence for this in the psalm. On the contrary, it may be our own arrogance that has blinded us to the psalm’s invitation for us to see ourselves in the context of all creation. This is a symphony and not a solo, after all. All God’s creatures have a place in the choir.

The second thing to notice is that all the members of creation’s congregation are assumed to have a voice. Otherwise they would not be able to accept the psalmist’s call to worship.

Some years ago I brought my Corgi puppy, Fiona, into my seminary classroom the day we studied Psalm 148. I set her up on my teaching desk and asked the class, “How does Fiona praise God?” The consensus was that Fiona praised God not just with barks, whines, and wiggles, but via her “essential Corginess.” She praised her creator just by being herself—thus fulfilling God’s command (v. 8)

Now that I have read Richard Powers’ novel, I wonder if there is much more to creation’s “voice” than most of us ever dare to imagine. Part of the novel’s premise is based on scientific evidence that trees communicate with one another. What else, I wonder, have we failed to notice simply because we are too ignorant (or arrogant) to understand?

The blurb on the book jacket of The Overstory could serve as a teaser for Psalm 148 as well. Both remind us that, “There is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us.” But both also raise an alarm—either explicitly in the case of the novel or implicitly in the case of the psalm—about humanity’s role in silencing or perverting creation’s voices. A polluted river, after all, is like Yo-Yo Ma with a broken arm. 3 billion birds gone missing is like an orchestra without a flute section.

Perhaps we should hear Psalm 148’s call to worship as both an invitation and a command. Perhaps “let them praise the name of the Lord” could also serve as a plea to stop silencing so many parts of creation’s choir.

Listen: All God’s Creatures

Prayer: Creator of all, forgive our arrogance. Forgive our greed. Give us eyes to see and minds to understand. Help us to restore as many voices in creation’s choir as we can.

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!