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Praise and Worship Song

April 4, 2016

“Praise and Worship Song” Psalm 150 © 4.3.16 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It’s said that the seventeenth century Anglican bishop Lancelot Andrewes could speak for an hour on a single word so that every conceivable meaning of it would be clear. And his audiences loved it. Inspired by his example this morning, I intend to spend sixty minutes on a term from the psalm for the day, repeating it over and over, in the manner of contemporary praise and worship songs. I’ll say it with different inflections and at varying volumes, just to keep things interesting. I hope you don’t have plans for lunch.

I’m kidding, of course. But only about the time and the repetition, not the focus on one word. It’s hard to avoid paying attention to it when it occurs in every verse in Psalm 150, over and over. In Hebrew it’s “Hallelu,” or “Hal’lu”; in English “praise.” The first and last words of the psalm are “Hallelu Yah,” which has come over without translation into our language as “Hallelujah” or from Greek “Alleluia.” It means “Praise Yahweh,” with “Yah” being a kind of nickname for God.

Preaching on a text with so much emphasis on praise is a little bit like lecturing on an exclamation point. A speaker can talk about the function of punctuation in general and the purpose of the one that looks like a baseball bat hovering over a ball. He could talk about authors who have been particularly fond of using it; she could reflect on its commonness in everyday speech. But talking about an exclamation point is not like using one, demonstrating its power. In a similar way, for this psalm, someone has suggested making “Hallelujah!” the theme of the whole service and simply singing praises. On the other extreme are the Puritans back in the day, who would have spent an inordinate amount of time in one of their four-hour meetings explaining the poem in detail before singing it. As I usually do, I’m aiming for somewhere in the middle, knowing full well that talking about praising God can never match our actually extolling him in all of life, experiencing each day as a Hallelujah moment.

How unrealistic, we say. How can we praise God when there’s so much hatred and violence and distrust and mayhem and malice, and he’s not doing a thing to stop it? When nature goes on the rampage, and people get hurt and die or sickness, loss, and grief—the stuff of lament, not praise—is our daily hard-crusted bread? Isn’t this psalm just for a festival like Easter or maybe for those pious fakes we have all encountered who sparkle on the outside, but inwardly are seething masses of resentment and pain?

Consider, though, that Psalm 150 comes at the end of the Psalter, put there intentionally by the editors to make a statement about the whole body of poems. The psalms have run the gamut from the depths of despair to the height of exultation, from complaint to confidence, from “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” to “Even if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” Those who assembled the psalms seem to be saying that they understand and have experienced all life can throw at human beings, but the goal of our lives, and that which lifts us up, is the praise of God. Praise more than obedience to moral instruction or orthodoxy of belief or righteous living is the point and purpose of our existence. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says as much when it reminds us that our “chief end” is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Jewish and Catholic liturgical practice both recommend singing Psalm 150 daily, as if to remind worshippers that whatever comes, God is the ruler yet.

You may know the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah,” released in 1984 after his tortured struggles with as many as 80 possible verses over the years. If you’ve seen Shrek, you’ve heard it, in the version by John Cale. “Hallelujah” is a song about a relationship between two people who don’t really understand each other. It’s full of pain, but also transcendence, “the holy and the broken,” as Cohen put it. Various singers have interpreted the song as “‘melancholic, fragile, uplifting [or] joyous,’” suggesting that “Hallelujah!” can be a response to many different experiences. Cohen and others used many different verses, with the last, as I understand, being the only common one in two live performances he did in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It think it speaks to the power of “Hallelujah!” to encompass and transform even our pain: “I did my best, it wasn’t much/I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch/I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you/And even though it all went wrong/I’ll stand before the Lord of Song/With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hallelujah_(Leonard_Cohen_song); http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/leonardcohen/hallelujah.html). (To hear and see Cohen perform the song, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrLk4vdY28Q).

“Hallelujah!” moves us beyond ourselves, to energize us for our daily tasks, reminding us that there’s more to life than having our noses in our phones or dealing with crises or being bored by endless routine. In England, at Oxford and Cambridge universities, chaplains are noticing a resurgence of interest in evening prayer services, known as “evensong.” The liturgy includes contemplative music along with words from the Book of Common Prayer. Midweek choral services are also seeing a surge in attendance at cathedrals across the country. One clergyman at Oxford wonders if the trend grows out of the search for what he calls “mindfulness” in an era when “we are constantly bombarded from the Internet, from media, from mobile [phones] which are hard to get away from” (The Christian Century, March 30, 2016: 8). Don’t we need to be lifted up to the heavens in a day when there is so much around to bring us down?

So whatever life brings, we praise. As the composer Tom Troeger has it: “With glad, exuberant carolings, with hymns and psalms of praise, give thanks through Christ for everything, give thanks to God always! Through songful worship, know that truth bare words cannot enfold. In raptured melodies of prayer, your God behold, behold! O brim the barreled lungs with joy and empty out this song: ‘Our breath, our pulse, our lives, our gifts to Christ the Lord belong! By day, by night, at work, at prayer, through storms and times of calm, let all your deeds and words compose a constant living psalm” (Thomas H. Troeger, 1984).

Who is the God evoking such praise from our lips and hearts? This is a God beyond categories, who will not be cornered, corralled, co-opted or controlled. Oh, sure, politicians, pundits, and preachers create a puny god in a box they can take out and parade when it suits them, connect with their viewpoints and policies, their hatred and scorn of this group or that. And the Bible does that sometimes, too, as Yahweh is pressed into the service of the tribes’ oppressive agendas, their thirst for conquest, their disdain for their neighbors, the need of men to dominate women, and on and on. Our tradition once upon a time, and for many, I guess, still does, considered God to be the one sitting in heaven writing memos about who should be saved and who condemned, unfeeling, unmoved by anything like compassion for the lost. But the psalmist will have none of any of that. We may start out worshipping God in a building we call a “sanctuary,” but pretty soon, he bursts out of that house, because the whole cosmos can’t contain him. “Praise him in his mighty firmament,” says the poet, by which he or she means the dome of the sky in which the sun and moon and all stars were imagined by the ancients to be suspended. We don’t have to buy their pre-scientific understanding to know that the psalm means the whole universe is God’s house.

Paul Tillich, the great twentieth century theologian, spoke of the “God above the God of theism,” (The Courage to Be, paperbound edition, 1959: 186ff), meaning the god we worship through our liturgies and discuss in our doctrinal systems is only a poor approximation of the Reality. Tillich observed that “God is being-itself beyond essence and existence.” He is the “ground of being,” “the power of being in everything and above everything…” (Systematic Theology, vol. 1: 205, 236-37). How could we possibly think we could contain One who is Being itself? Yet, though far beyond us, this is a God whom to worship and praise gives us the courage to face our meaninglessness and anxiety, our loneliness and longing. He is the God at once beyond us and among us. That’s why the psalmist says we sing “Hallelujah! for Yahweh’s “mighty deeds,” done in human history, and “according to his surpassing greatness,” God’s reality beyond imagination, as Being itself. “God is greater than our understanding,” says A Declaration of Faith. “God comes to us on his own terms, and is able to do far more than we ask or think.”

So how do we praise this God with and beyond us? The poet spends a good bit of time on that subject. Every instrument known to the ancients was to be used, along with dance. We can see in the list the categories and the forerunners of modern instruments. The trumpet is a shofar, a ram’s horn, a trumpet without valves, which could blast out a sound that couldn’t be ignored. The lute is the forerunner of the guitar. By the way, if only the folks in my home church growing up had actually read this psalm, the guitar would not have been relegated to an occasional grudging appearance on a Sunday night. My, how times have changed! The tambourine in the text is the timbrel, much like the modern instrument, or maybe the word should be translated “drums”; anyway, it’s percussion, as are the loud cymbals. Strings are probably the psaltery, and of course the harp, but we could include anything in the string section, from violin or fiddle to stand-up bass, and again, guitars, mandolins, ouds, and pianos. The latter could also, of course, be a percussion instrument. Pipes are everything from today’s penny whistle to flutes and saxophones and clarinets, along with organs.

And then there’s dance. Not something seen much in churches, but our Book of Order calls it a form of prayer (W-2.1005). This is dance as celebration, movement, the use of the body in liturgy. Someone has suggested that whatever motions we go through in worship, from coming in to sitting down to standing up and in many traditions, kneeling or lifting hands in prayer, can be included here. In ancient times, it was the women who danced in celebration, keeping the beat with tambourines. Now, of course, anyone can join in.

But even if you’re like me, a disco disaster in the ‘70s, you can dance with God and for God, as an enacted “Hallelujah!” Maria Harris talks about the dance of the Spirit, and envisions spirituality as “‘steps in a dance, where there is movement backward and forward, turn and return, bending and bowing, circling and spiraling, and no need to finish or move on to the next step, except in our own good time, and God’s. At whatever step we find ourselves, we are where we are meant to be.’” By “spirituality” she means “‘[o]ur way of being in the world: surrounded, held, cherished, touched by, and bathed in the light of the Mystery of God.’” “The seven steps of the spiritual dance include: Awakening, Dis-Covering, Creating, Dwelling, Nourishing, Traditioning, and Transforming” (Tammy Wiens, “Dance Steps Toward Spiritual Maturity,” Insights, Spring 2016: 21).

All the instruments and dancers praising together create not a cacophony, but a creative whole. Make no mistake: it’s loud, and a little wild, and probably unlike anything you or I have experienced or wanted in worship. I imagine the psalm being performed in ancient days rather like a jazz tune, with each instrument and the dancers taking a part, then joining in a big finale. A wonderful affirmation of individual creativity and community cooperation and relating to each other. Speaking of jazz, you may know that Duke Ellington composed three sacred concerts from 1965-1973. The second premiered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in 1968. It ended with a ten-minute piece entitled “Praise God and Dance,” based on Psalm 150. As one music critic has noted, the Sacred Concerts illustrated “‘how jazz, long denounced in religious circles as vulgar “devil’s music,” can rise to the level of the sacred’” (quoted in Kelly J. Murphy http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2826; the article contains further comments on the significance of the concerts for their day). (Visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6km6OSmG958 at 46:53 for the finale of the Second Sacred Concert.)

The point, with whatever instrument, with whatever kind of movement we praise, in whatever style, is “‘lyrical self-abandonment,’” a song of praise “‘sung without reserve or qualification,’” an “‘utter yielding of self,’” as Walter Brueggemann has put it (quoted in Texts for Preaching…Year C: 278). Or as Nick Cave, the rock singer in a raucous tune wants every boy and girl around the world to do: “Praise Him till you’ve forgotten what you’re praising Him for, then praise Him a little bit more” (“Get Ready for Love”).

Who is to praise God with such abandon, with such loud exuberance and creativity? Ultimately, the whole creation says the psalmist. Praise makes us one with our neighbors, one with all that we see, everything that has breath.

I can think of no better way to end our reflection today than with the incredible hymn by Fred Pratt Green, one of my all-time favorites, sung to the tune engelberg. “When in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried: Alleluia! How often, making music, have we found a new dimension in the world of sound, as worship moves us to a more profound Alleluia! So has the church, in liturgy and song, in faithful love, through centuries of wrong, borne witness to the truth in every tongue: Alleluia! Let every instrument be tuned for praise! Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise! And may God give us faith to sing always: Alleluia! Amen” (Fred Pratt Green, 1972).

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