Starting and ending this way



Mary Oliver wrote, in her poem, "Mindful":

Every day,
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leave me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It is what I was born for -
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world -
to instruct myself over and over

in joy,
and acclamation,
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant -
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these -
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean's shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

Like the Psalmists of old, some of us cultivate a life of praise. 
We notice, and we say it outloud.

In our Summer of Psalms series, our text today is another of our Psalms of orientation – those prayers that start us out on the foundation of God’s goodness and reliability, and point us, like Mary Oliver does, to the world’s beauty. These Psalms root us in God’s guidance and care.  Here is where you begin, this psalm of orientation says, Praise the Lord! 

When our psalmist was writing, there was no doubting that God existed. There was no need to convince oneself or others of the mysterious reality beyond what we can see and touch. Nobody saw God as an abstract idea, or a principle in need of defending.  
It was accepted that along with the material ream is the inexplicable that deserves deference, even praise. 

But today we kind of live the opposite way. We find ways to say things are NOT God’s doing. We praise the surgeons, and the treatment protocol. We praise coincidence and good timing. We praise forethought, and complete planning, and we praise sound investments, and even luck.  Rarely when something happens, do we give the credit to God. Rarely is our first instinct to say, “Wow, God! You are so great! You are kind and powerful and good to me! Good job on the world!

But our psalmist says God deserves to be praised. The psalmist celebrates that God is the Lord over all, who also comes near in love and care. Unlike the deities of the age, the empty idols, or perilous guessing games of reward and punishment, or the intricate dance of avoiding offense and placating evil, the Lord seeks to be in relationship with people and invites feedback. God is involved, guiding and saving God’s people, sharing God’s very name. 

When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, God said, I am the God of your of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God who has been good and faithful to to your ancestors, you can trust me. Go and tell the people I will set them free. 
And  Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” 
God answered Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:1-17)

This is a very confusing name to say and to translate– it’s all consonants, to pronounce it sounds like an exhaled breath, YHWH. Vowels were added, so now it is pronounced, Yahweh, and it might mean, I am who I am, or, I will be what I will be. 
There’s a timelessness to the name of God, a was and is and will be-ness built right into the mystery of it. 
There is also a lack of contingency, a self-definition. God is. God will be. God is being. 
I AM.  That one doesn’t need us. That one doesn’t need anything – so self-contained, so holy, so set apart, so unlike human beings, 
YHWH is high above all nations, 
   and God’s glory above the heavens. 
Who is like YHWH our God,
   who is seated on high, 
who looks far down
   on the heavens and the earth? t
he psalmist says.  

After a while, it began to feel presumptuous and overconfident to use this sacred and personal name for God, even though God shared the name in the first place. God is too holy, it was decided, and we are not worthy. So far above us is God, that to speak God’s name felt like a violation of that distinction. Better to stick with titles, maintain proper respect.  
Every time the name came up in spoken word or manuscripts, it was substituted with Adonai, “The Lord.” If you look in your bible, anywhere it says The Lord in small caps, it is filling in for where it used to say the very name of God.  

In this little Psalm, that is 8 times.

So when the psalmist says "Praise the name of the Lord," he is saying, Praise the name of Yahweh!  Say good things about Yahweh, applaud Yahweh. Recognize I AM for who God is and what God does!  
And then the psalmist goes on to say who God is, and what it is that God does.  

I AM comes down from God’s seat, high above the heavens. The Hebrew root for this seat is yashab, and gives the poor man a throne among princes, root word is yashab, and the barren woman a joyful home with children, root word, again, is yashab
God gives up God’s seat to lift the poor, male and female, all of us, and gives the needy and left out God’s very own place, to be at home alongside God, to have honor among the people and security forever with God.  Biblical scholar Rolf Jacobson summarizes this as God’s “self-emptying, gracious intrusion” into our world. This is who Yahweh is and what Yahweh does.  

We have been given the name of God another time too. God’s self-emptying, gracious intrusion is on display when God comes alongside us and takes on all that would separate us from God and one another, bringing us into a bond with God that cannot be broken. The name God gave us is then is Jesus, Emmanuel, God With Us
In the name of Jesus we see who God is and what God does. 
And so we praise the name of Jesus.  
We praise the name of the Lord, for who God is and what God has done.
.  
Today, when a person does something good or great, we praise them. 
The player who kicks the winning goal is praised for being focused and athletic and determined and a great teammate. But we don’t just randomly list those qualities, we praise her for these things after the praise-worthy event occurs. 
The winner of the Nobel Peace prize is selfless and resolute and brave and inspirational, because they did something exceptional that is worthy of lifting up.  And when we lift up their action, we recognize that it says something about who they are. 
Praise is connected to something a person does. And we might say their act reveals who they are.  So we praise them for what they’ve done, but also for who they are, which is revealed in what they do.  

God is just and kind and good because God has shown justice and kindness and goodness to us. This is how Israel praised God.  They recounted, over and over, the things God had done, and what those things revealed about who God is.

But once we praise and honor a person for something great and say how great they are, it’s pretty awful if they disappoint us – if they act differently than the character we’ve praised them for. If we learn that they’ve cheated, or abused someone, or taken a bribe, suddenly our praise feels foolish and hollow.  They are not worthy of it after all; their character is not what we thought it to be. So there is an inherent risk in praising – we are trusting the person is indeed worthy of it and expecting them to continue being so.  
Praise puts an obligation of sorts on a person.  They are not just bound to their own self and their integrity, they are now bound to those who’ve looked up to them and admired them. 

Humans are not really worthy of this kind of honor- nobody is really capable over a lifetime of always being the good and kind and selfless and brave and inspirational people we aspire to be. Even if we are for a moment or few, it’s impossible to maintain that in perpetuity and not eventually let someone down.

But not so of God.  I Am Who I Will Be does not waver in goodness and greatness, in love and care.  God is worthy of praise from the first light of morning to last drop of night’s darkness.

Yesterday I read an article entitled, “The God of Love Has Had a Really Bad Week.” It addressed the crowd at Trump’s rally this week who chanted, “send her back!” about our own Minnesota Senator Ilhan Omar, and wondered where they went to Sunday school and whether they’d been paying attention. It went on to say that for many Christians, including the author’s own brother with whom she is no longer speaking, the God of love has been replaced by a strict, bend-the-knee-or-be-punished kind of “Emperor-God, enthroned in glory.”  It that even though we are using the same bible, we are coming up with different Gods, and we need to get back to a God of love.

We have really bad weeks, we humans.  With occasional, fleeting praise-worthy moments, we mostly live like we’re divided. We are often horrible to each other.  We are sinful and deluded, and we dehumanize others and degrade them.  And we feel justified doing so by whatever conscious fears or unconscious prejudices are guiding us. And then we are shocked and horrified when we see people dehumanize others and degrade them, so we dehumanize and degrade those people, and feel justified doing so by whatever conscious fears and unconscious prejudices are guiding us.
And then we say that God is having a really bad week.

The God of love doesn’t have really bad weeks. 
The God of love is also the God enthroned in glory – above and beyond all the fray and unable to be captured and possessed by us, unable to be bent to our purposes or claimed for our causes, no matter how worthy we think they are or how loudly we proclaim them. 
The God of love is not like us.  
I Am Who I Will Be comes down from on high to be God With Us, to lift the poor and needy from the ash heap to sit with princes, and to give the barren a home filled with children.  God With Us comes into our dishonor and our poverty, our isolation and our impossibility, and give us what is God’s own - a seat alongside God and one another in love and honor. 
This God doesn’t have a really bad week.  

This God is, every moment from now until forever from now [1], worthy of praise.  Because this God is not an empty idol, or a perilous guessing game of reward and punishment, or an intricate dance of avoiding offense and placating evil, or an abstract idea or principle in need of defending.  

God is a real and living being beyond all, who can be recognized and encountered and experienced. God seeks to be in relationship with us and invites feedback. God reveals who God is as a minister, that is, through the act of loving and caring for us, and through us for others. God’s relentless self-emptying, persistent gracious intrusion does not ever stop, not ever, even if we stop paying attention.  
God is worthy of our praise.

So we can begin by lifting up the action of God.  
Praise begins with noticing, What has God done in my life?  
And for us modern people, it begins with risking giving God credit where we might instead want to credit chance or a good idea, or someone’s skill, or dumb luck.  
Imagine that God is more involved than you think in almost everything. 
And imagine that even in the ash heaps of our world and the barrenness of our lives, actually, especially there, God graciously intrudes. 

God is with us, always, always working to bring life out of death.  
This does not deny the experiences of death and horror, but it does say they are not greater or more definitive than God’s love and care. They are not greater than God’s sovereignty, so they will not ultimately win or define us.  

God persists in God’s work of love and transformation, in the smallest, most insignificant things and the greatest, most overwhelming things. There is nowhere God is not, and there is nothing that God fears. 
The God of love is enthroned in glory above all powers both now and forever. 
And God’s love is greater than our hatred and our small-mindedness, greater than our competition and our self-righteousness, greater than our injustice and cruelty, so that love can break through even in those places, between the cracks and up from below, unstoppable, even by the most terrible things we humans can do to one another. 
God comes into the stopping of death with the breath of life. 

The God of love will never stop saving us, coming to us, returning us to God and to one another, where we truly belong.  What God does cannot be undone, no matter how hard we might try, or how loudly we might deny it.

So get on with it!  the Psalmist urges us. Praise the Lord! Cultivate a life of praise!  Start and end this way:
Praise God for every time we are confronted with our sin, and praise God for each moment we remember our belonging. 
Praise God for every glimpse of beauty and praise God for each pause of joy God gives us in this life. 
Praise God for the moments of healing, and praise God for the breakthroughs of hope.
Praise God for the words of comfort the friend said, and praise God for the taste of the ripe tomato right off the vine. 
Praise God for the sore muscles and hard work that made something beautiful, and praise God for the tears of release, the hand held and the pain not borne alone. 
For all things, in all times, Praise Jesus, O you servants of I AM. 
From now until forever from now, for who God is and what God does, Praise the Lord!

This is the second of a four part series on the spirituality of the Psalms.  
You can read the rest here: 
Part 1 - A life well-lived


[1]I’m grateful to Alice Worden for this evocative phrasing from a gorgeous Prayer Around the Cross liturgy she wrote for this Psalm.

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