Friday, September 28, 2018

Finding Breath to Praise (Psalm 150) by Rev. Dr. Steve Locke

To praise anyone, especially God, you have to step back from yourself and then immerse yourself in the glory of that person. It is in many ways like learning to sing. Many rock and roll singers have short careers because they don’t understand how to sing. They can’t step back from the affect their persona has on the crowd and they forget to breathe, to find the right pitch and diction. Singing is an exercise, a physical appreciation of body and soul that brings forth the depth of passion in the song. It means pushing everything else away from your mind and body, all the anxiety and fear that can close the throat and hurt the pitch. It means first learning to breathe and feel the air as a wonderful gift of life moving through your body to provide the perfect sound. You have to stand back from the pain of your life, the fear of your life, and the doubt of your life before you can see what is truly worth praising.  These are breathing lessons of the heart. We need to learn to breathe again to feel the freshness, the freshness and the exuberance of the air. To praise God we need to breathe: we need breathing lessons.

Praise is not easy; it finds itself stuttering off the tongue. It is born out of the things we see, the things we pay attention to not necessarily from passion. Praise comes from the flowers that smell beautifully, the trees the stand majestically, and the people in our lives that stand courageously. Praise is observation before it is inspiration. In order to stand before the world to praise a God that many find objectionable, we need to learn to pay attention. Praise is beyond wanting; it is listening without wanting anything for ourselves. Praise is beating the drums because there is nothing else to do. It is strumming a guitar with melody and vibrant excitement because you have lost yourself in the sound of the chord. When things become pedantic, there is no praise, there is only precision and personal enjoyment. But when the keys excite you, and when the strings compel you, and when the breath through the trumpet brings you joy, then you are on your way. It all begins with breathing lessons.

Imagine yourself as a Jewish person in the 8th century B.C. You have lost your homeland, but your heart yearns for the times you sang with your family, you sang with your friends in the temple to the delight of your heart. Then you are removed from this experience. You try to sing but you need to learn how to do it under a new king and a new God being praised all around you. So you go into your houses and in the fields, when your captors are not looking, and you sing your songs. Your breathing was free; your mind was captivated with the hope of going home. And then you find yourself transported home to the temple with the songs of tradition. Would not you want to free yourself from the shackles of your captors and sing with the triumphant sounds of praise? You praise God because of the hope in your singing, the hope in your breath. All this takes new breathing lessons to praise God.

What are these breathing lessons necessary to praise God?
· Praise does not begin in the noisy atmosphere of the busyness of life. It begins as we step back from this atmosphere and listen for the distinct voices that form the chorus of sound. It is paying attention to the voice of stillness, the voice of patience, the voice of goodness, and the voice of wisdom. It is listening to the wind through the trees that may frighten but also ignite a sense of life and power.
· Praise is perfected through the practice of listening as we learn to breathe again with the breath of God. As the confusion inside us begins to calm down and we breathe in the fresh air of God, our mind begins to attach itself to the ways of living that honor God.
· Praise is set loose in the act of living or as in this Psalm, the act of playing. On the drum we raise up from our silence and set loose the joy of praise. As we strum a chord it raises a smile on our face because of its wonderful sound. In the same way, when we live harmoniously with God and others there is a smile arranged in our heart which is the praise of God.

For the Psalmist, one of his goals in life was to “rediscover the breathing lessons” that can produce a wonderful sound. That is what he wants for his life: to find the spiritual harmony between himself and God.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Uneasy Pilgrim (Psalm 121) by Rev. Steve Locke

I think it fair to say that the Psalms are addressed to Israel and about Israel’s spiritual vision. The subject of the Psalms almost always turns to God and God’s power, right and protection of Israel. These nationalistic prayers need be deconstructed for those of us who have a faith that is centered in Jesus. It is up to us to deconstruct these Psalms from their nationalistic direction for the spiritual empowerment of individuals that stand outside Israel’s tradition. It is especially important to do this when we consider the “Pilgrim Psalms” that begin with Psalms 120. We must dig deeper to find the treasure in these Psalms that will provide spiritual direction. Psalms 121 directs our attention to God’s protective and providential nature. But it is not just for Israel. As we have come to believe through Jesus and Paul these prayers are for all of us, from different traditions. They are to be used by us with full confidence that they are useful tools to unearth the way of God in the world.

For these Pilgrim Psalms we need to ask the basic question, “What do we need from God to start our pilgrimage?” The answer to this question is the reason Psalm 121 is so popular.  It says that what we need for any pilgrimage is to know God is walking with us protecting us from harm, that God will keep us from evil and will help us from going astray. In other words, first we need to have faith that God cares for us and will enter into our life as we ask for traveling mercies. Second, we are counting on God to protect us from the evil things of this world, which come from individuals and forces beyond our control.  Third, we pray to God to help us stay on the path. We need help in keeping the goal in front of us instead of getting sidetracked into things that detour our purpose.

Imagine that all of us were taking a pilgrimage to Louisville, which happens to be the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Each year Presbyterians from around the country would prepare to go to three days of seminars and lectures designed to strengthen our spiritual life. Those that were going from this church would get together and plan our itinerary. We might stop over in Las Vegas for a night, or we might decide to visit New Orleans along the way. Some of us might decide to go to the Bourbon Country or to some other entertainment place.  And because it was such a big event there would be signs along the way advertising cheap lunches, cheap motels and everything else people might want. All these distractions are hazardous to the journey. 

It was the same for Israel.: roads were filled with advertisements, with temptations and with those ready to take your money. Psalms 121 was written with these hazards in mind. It laid before the people of Israel, as it does us, the profound need to pray and keep praying as we look forward to the day. All the strategies and plans we make are useful but the most useful thing we can do in each day of our pilgrimage is to pray for the protection and care of God. There are dangers in each day that are unforeseen, known and ignored. Prayer helps us stay centered throughout the day so that we not only reach our destination but also grow in our faith through this experience.

Our help comes from God, not from all of those promising protection along the way of our journey (The Hills).  God will help us from the pressures of the day and the craziness at night when we have time to think about the temptations all around us (sunstroke and moon-stroke). God is concerned about your life and where it is going along this road to spiritual discovery (keep you from evil). If we keep this in mind we will be living out the prayers of Psalms 121.

But this Psalm is not only for pilgrimages or journeys, it is for each day. Each day is filled with enough possible danger and evil to handle. Each day has enough distractions in it that can set us adrift from our goals. But also in each day is the chance to engage our faith to meet these temptations and challenges. As long as we bring God with us on our journey throughout the day we will succeed in completing God’s purpose.