David A. Davis
February 3, 2019
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It just sounds like such a psalm, Psalm 71. “In you, O Lord, I take refuge…Incline your ear to me and save me. Be to me rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save, for you are my rock and my fortress.” So…..psalm-like. “O God, do not be far from me; O my God, make haste to help me! . . . I will hope continually and praise you yet more and more….I will also praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praise to you with lyre.” Yeah, that sounds like a psalmist. Sort of like if you were listening to piece of music you didn’t’ quite recognize, you could guess it was Bach, or Brahms, or Beethoven, or Basie, Bacharach, or Beyonce. The notes, the lyrics, the tune, the tone. It’s a psalm.
Even the wishing ill for enemies, for those who seek to hurt, for accusers, the asking for some inkling of divine retribution, it’s sort of psalm-ish, to be honest. “Let my enemies be put to shame and consumed; let those who seek to hurt me be covered with scorn and disgrace.” There’s a lot of that in the psalms; not just save me from my enemies but a few burning coals heaped on their head would be good too, Lord. “Those who surround me lift up their heads, let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them! Let burning coals fall on them! Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise!” (Psalm 141). Plenty more where that came from; just like Psalm 71. Asking God to not only protect but to squash the haters like a bug.
Editors of English bibles fill those parts with exclamation points hoping the reader will conclude its all hyperbole. That the psalmists were, in their enthusiasm or praise, their zest for God’s way, that they were all exaggerating, perhaps, in a poetic way. “Let those who seek to hurt me be covered with scorn and disgrace.” It makes you and I uncomfortable, such a cry for vengeance. Challenges the sensibilities. But, you know, it sounds like the psalmist. And it’s less about those ancient hymn writing poets using hyperbole and a lot more about them being….human. The psalmists and their humanity. There’s something comforting, even liberating about it for those of us who have had more than our share of similar thoughts.
Which makes the psalmist’s affirmation of life long praise, the psalmist’s longing for life long trust, the psalmist’s yearning to offer a witness to a life long faith in the steadfast mercy and power and protection of God, it makes it all so much more…real. “For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth. Upon you I have leaned from my birth…Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent….I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more…O God from my youth you have taught me and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old and age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations come.” From birth, to youth, to old age. All of life. From cradle to the grave. I will praise. I will trust. I will sing. I will proclaim all that you have done. “My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have rescued.”
Here’s where some will ask how on earth it would be possible to attest to such life long praise. When the psalmist writes of strength that is spent in old age, one would think there would certainly be testimony to moments of weakness in faith, or just a bit of doubt, of of feeling distant from God. Some acknowledgement of a season of not being able to praise, trust, sing, proclaim. Some time in life, some time in the span of life when it’s not just weak knees and drooping hands (to use the phrase from the Book of Hebrews) but a span of weak faith and a drooping spirit as well. So unrealistic! So perfect. So not like my life. Might as well right off the psalmist and those of the psalmist’s ilk, set aside those who sound so psalm-like. “Come, on! Life long praise, seriously?”
To which the appropriate response would be…..LOL! “This is the psalmist who ask God to put the accusers to shame, to consume the enemies, to take those who seek to hurt and cover them with scorn and disgrace! You think that psalmist, that vaunted poet of faith so utterly human that the thirst for revenge and payback can’t be contained, you think that psalmist never had a bad day of faith? Come on!” The psalms are songs. Poems, hymns, works of art. So full of prayers. Hopes. Dreams. Longings. Aspirations. Like life long praise, like cradle to grave faith. I so want to trust you, O God! I yearn to praise you’re name all the days of my life! Help me, Lord, to lead a life of praise and adoration and gratitude to you!
Earlier this week my wife, Cathy, and I went to McCarter Theater to listen to the Lincoln Center Chamber Orchestra play an evening of piano quartets. My favorite was the Brahms. All through the piece you could hear the measures of the melody moving from the violin to the viola to the cello to the piano and back again. Over and over, again. Volume changes, maybe the tempo shifts, sometimes each musician would rest and just listen. But the melody kept coming back. That’s how the melody of praise and trust works in the concerto of faith that is life. In the span of one’s life, some notes are offered to God with boldness and clarity in double forte. Others barely plucked and therefore barely heard by anyone else, except the Holy One. And to be honest, sometimes all you can do is rest, you sit and listen to someone else offer that familiar, yet right then a seemingly distant, song of praise.
Have you ever had an experience at a meal where you couldn’t get a word in edgewise? Or maybe you didn’t feel like talking even if you could? A work meal where your presence was more important than anything you had to contribute. A lunch with a friend where, after hello, you didn’t say anything until good-bye, but with your presence you were a really good friend? A dinner with the kids where they are suddenly doing all the talking and with your silence you learn all sorts of things they never would have told you, even if you asked?
In all the mystery and power and grace of this communion meal, part of the meaning is your participation is an act of praise and thanksgiving to God in and through Jesus Christ. Yes, you actually only speak a few words in the liturgy, but your presence is an expression of gratitude. Even more, you know every time we gather around this Table there are those who consider their faith feeble, their doubts too many to count, and in terms of carrying any melody of praise and adoration, it’s more like a season of counting measures of rest. But even then, especially then, our presence here is one of praise. “Accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” we pray before taking, blessing, breaking, giving, eating, drinking. “Every time you eat this bread and drink this bread, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”. Those words of the Apostle Paul in the Greek of the New Testament, the you is plural. You (all) proclaim the Lord’s death. It’s a meal for the people of God. A meal for life long praise.
When our children were very young they had a dozen or so extra grandparents. All of their biological grandparents were alive when they were babies, toddlers, early elementary but none of them lived near us. The deep bench of grandparents and great grand-parents came from the congregation I served. The surrogates all lived on the six or eight blocks around the church and we lived in the manse right next to the church. When Cathy was preaching in another congregation on a Sunday morning, the kids would be with a grandparent in worship. It was a grandparent who volunteered to be in the house on Christmas Eve when we both had to lead a late service of candlelight. A walk with the stroller or on training wheels would pass 3, 4, 5 sets of grandparents the kids saw all the time and every Sunday. Grandma Rae had been widowed longer than I was alive at the time and waited tables at the diner for decades. Grandpa Walt was captured at the Battle of the Bulge and lost his son Timmy to car accident at 21. Grandma Elizabeth had quite a set of collectible baby dolls and ran the local hardware and feed store all by herself during the war. Grandma Mame never served iced tea without a knitted cosie for the moisture and lived in her house as a widow longer she lived in it as spouse. Grandpa Mark landed at Normandy on D-Day, and he always brought real, stone arrowheads to the kids that he found on walks through state game lands with his dog Knipper.
I have said many times and in many places that it was the church that taught our children when they were very young, when they were pre-teens, when they were teenagers, how to have a conversations with adults, with folks of all ages. It was the church that taught our kids appropriate social skills with multi-generations of the communion of saints. But more than that, it was the church, that church and this one, that taught my kids about life long praise. They will never know Grandma Rae’s suffering as a young widow and what it was like to raise kids waiting tables. They still have those arrow heads but they will never have any idea what Grandpa Mark must have seen in WWII. But both of them, all of them, showed my kids a longing to trust God Almighty their whole life long. I’ve long since grown weary of people lamenting that this or that congregation is full of so many older people when what ought to be said is “Wow, Can you believe how many older people are in that church?” Life long praise.
One of the expressions of the psalmist in Psalm 71 is “All day long”. “My mouth is filled with your praise and with your glory all day long. (v8)….My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all day long. (v15)…..All day long my tongue will talk of your righteousness help. (v24). All day long. All day long. In some contexts, that expression connotes an attitude, a bodacious brag, a self confidence. In athletics, for one, someone sinks a basket over the defender and runs back up the court saying: “All day long, all day long”. The next time. For the next forty minutes. Every time we play you from now and kingdom come. All day long. All day long. It’s not just celebration, not just a boast, they call it trash talk. You better get ready my friend because I am going score on you every time. All day long! All day long!
When it comes to life long praise, “all day long”, it’s not trash talk, it’s kingdom talk. Not just all day, all my life, Lord! It’s a vow, a promise. All day long. It’s a prayer, a plea. All day long. It’s a faith statement. It’s who we were created to be. All day long. All day long. The peace of Christ be with you. All day long. The Lord be with you. All day long. I will trust and not be afraid. All day long. Bless the Lord, O my soul. All day long.