Text: Text: Psalm 111
Following the Lectionary, the three years cycle of lessons that intends us to read and meditate so we can follow the way of Christ, can be a challenge. Each week, I am given four different readings from the Bible. I usually choose a passage that has a story. I love stories, and I love to make a connection between the stories in the Bible and our stories. I tend to, though not always, choose a story that is familiar or interesting. Chances are that I don’t have to push my boundaries. I can still find meaning within my comfort zone. So, these days, I try to pick a passage that invites me to wrestle and to explore the unknown or the unwelcomed that I have ignored. Those passages can help us know what we need in order for us to grow, and be transformed into the ones God intends us to be. When God speaks through the unfamiliar passages, it’s like we receive the most surprising yet life-giving words from an unexpected guest.
Psalm 111 is the unexpected guest for us today. It begins with one of the most familiar expressions yet has become unfamiliar to us, “Praise the Lord!” The older English translation “Praise ye the Lord” makes it clear that the verb is in the plural. The command to praise is addressed to the members of the worshipping community. The word hallel in Hebrew means a joyous praise in song, to boast in God. Hallel could also refer to someone who acts madly or foolishly. Just imagine that. All of us who are gathered here have actually been summoned to praise God like crazy. This is a radical invitation first and foremost to look to God, and celebrate God’s presence in all circumstances.
That sounds like an impossible task to most of us, perhaps only possible to saints like Saint Francis of Assisi who praised the Lord through the whole creation. We do sing but only when we feel like singing. We do praise somebody but only when we find something to approve or admire in that particular person. By selecting when to sing and when not to sing, or whom to praise and whom to blame, we put ourselves at the centre of the universe, as if life is all about us. That’s not the kind of praise the palmist invites us to practice. It’s a summons into something outside of ourselves. It’s about being connected with everyone and everything. It’s about belonging to something much bigger than ourselves. It’s about being open to the grace all around us.
Have you ever seen someone praising God as if no one else is watching but inviting everyone to sense the holy? I can still vividly remember a young girl in a village in Kazakhstan. I joined a group called A Youth With A Mission about eighteen years ago. After three months of intensive training while living as an intentional community, my team and I were assigned to a mission trip to the country in central Asia. Like any other life changing experiences, the highlight of the trip was not what we did, but what we received from the people we met. In fact, we were so immature that there were some conflicts, disharmony and distrust among the group. So there we were trying to demonstrate the good news while suffering inwardly from the uneasy group dynamics. One particular encounter made a huge impact on the entire team. We went to a rural area joining a house church. A dozen people gathered together to worship with us. There was a young girl in the room, who was about 10 or 11 years old praising God the entire time we were there. It’s not what she did, but how she did what she did that turned everything upside down. Her openness and sincerity made her God real and known to all of us. As it turned out, she was doing the work we were supposed to do. She was the psalmist who said, “Praise ye the Lord!” not your pride, not your good works; do not choose whom to praise and whom to blame, but praise the Lord wholeheartedly; praise the goodness in everyone we see and in the whole creation.
Psalm 111 ends with saying “God’s praise endures forever.” It acknowledges that our praise comes from God; it is God’s way of seeing and communicating to the world. Not just one time, but seven times God says “It is good” in the creation story. Seven means perfection, completeness and wholeness. God doesn’t say it’s good for someone or something else, but says, it is good just as it is. We all were born into this radical praise. It is what nurtures and sustains us, our homes, our communities and our planet.
I realize, however, that this radical way of living has become unfamiliar to many of us. There are lots of things to worry about, things that keep us awake at night, and things that distract us from singing and praising. I appreciate the word “endures” in the last sentence. It doesn’t say that we are to endure. It says, God’s praise endures forever. My dictionary defines endure as to experience and deal with something that is painful or unpleasant, especially without complaining. So it speaks about God’s compassion that God suffers with the whole creation.
According to the psalmist, our primary task is not to endure (that’s God’s business), but to keep a sense of awe. Verse 10 reads, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” The word fear can hinder us from grasping its full meaning. The fear of the Lord is rather a sense of awe or reverence. God, the Gift-Giver is not separated from the creation which is God’s gift. We are invited to see everything with respect, reverence and awe. The psalmist says, that is the beginning of wisdom.
I was struck by how an Indigenous poet speaks the same thing. Richard Wagamese in Embers – One Ojibway’s Meditations says the following.
“The beginning of wisdom is the same as its attainment: wonder. The truest statement in the world is “you never know.” There is always something to evoke wonder, to wonder about, because this world, this life, this universe, this reality is far more than just the sum of its parts. Even the slightest detail contains much more. The overwhelming awe and wonder we feel teach us more than we can ever glean or come to know of things. In the presence of that wonder, the head has no answers and the hearts has no questions.”
Richard Wagamese is the psalmist who says, “Praise ye the Lord” inviting us to live with awe and wonder.
No matter how loud and clear our psalmists shout, it’s still up to us to receive what is familiar, yet has become unfamiliar. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! We never know what surprising gifts are waiting for us when we follow the unfamiliar path.