Thursday, August 27, 2015

Learning to Breathe Again: Psalm 146

After a few years away from singing in a community choir, I found myself joining the local one when I moved to a small town in Vermont to serve as minister. It was the first time since college that I became part of a choral group that sings more demanding material, and let me tell you, I came home exhausted. We rehearsed for two hours, sometimes a little longer, and it was a stimulating and engaging experience to delve into the music selected for each program. Nonetheless, after that first night in September, my feet hurt from standing, my voice hurt from hitting a few notes I had not visited in awhile, and my gut hurt.

One of the key elements of singing is whether you can breathe well. Finding the pitch, being able to carry a tune—these are helpful, but you also have to be able to breathe so that what you are trying to sing has adequate support. Good breathing skills are needed to sing, but they take practice, and that night in September, I realized how out of practice I had become with these skills. Nonetheless, to be able to keep up with the demands of singing the music well, you have to improve your breathing skills.

When the psalms speak of praise of God, the ability to breathe is part of the act of praise. Praise and breathing are intertwined in the Psalms, and for good reason. The Hebrew Scriptures remind us, particularly in the Psalter, that we breathe only because God has given us breath.

As the Creation narratives unfold, the book of Genesis refers to the wind and breath that enlivens Creation as that of the Spirit of God being imparted. Without God’s activity, Creation has not come alive. In Genesis 1, the winds that move over the waters and the very act of bringing to life the first human is about God breathing life into Creation, humanity included. (Even the Hebrew word used for wind or breath as well as describing the Spirit of God, called by Christians as the Holy Spirit, is breathy in its pronunciation: ruach.) Thus, the 150th Psalm calls out, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord”, reminding that all of Creation breathes together the same breath of life. Thus, the 140th Psalm’s vision of God as “provider of all” refers to death as when God’s breath is taken away, such is the Psalter’s notion of how dependent we humans are on God. Thus, the melancholy of the 144th Psalm as it refers to humans as those “who are like a breath; their days like a passing shadow”.

The Psalms come from a theological worldview that ties breath and life together as gifted to us by God. Thus, in turn, the act of praise comes about because we have breath, and especially when the created finally remember with all due reverence the Creator who has given us the breath!

The failing of humanity, however, as the 146th Psalm puts it, is when we falter in remembering from where our praise and breath comes from. Psalm 146 gives a criticism here that should be noted: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day, their plans perish.” The Psalmist offers a contrary word to the way things tend to work in this world. Even though the language of “princes” is archaic, the intimation is that we should be careful where and with whom we place our hope. Do not be lulled into thinking that “the powers that be” will ultimately save you or keep you completely safe and secure. No nation or leader will deliver this. (They certainly will promise it if it keeps their throne safe for the time being, but reigns and presidencies alike cannot keep us from all harm.) Thus the contrary world of the Bible looms over the reader of the Psalm, calling upon the hearer to reorient themselves in what seems disorienting: It is in God alone that we find our hope and trust.

See the first two verses of Psalm 146. These are the type of verses of the Bible that you encourage people to memorize and keep close to heart: “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.” (Ps. 146:1-2) If you are able to keep these praises close to heart, and these “princes” or “powers that be” at arm’s length, you have begun to live a more authentic life, getting away from those things that may seem to sound good now, but later and inevitably run out of air.

The film Dream Girls featured a number of very talented actors, including Jamie Foxx, Eddy Murphy, and a newcomer Jennifer Hudson, who went from American Idol contestant to winning an Oscar for her first film. Each of the characters has a great deal of talent. Foxx is an aspiring music agent and promoter. Murphy is an aging performer seeking that next “new sound”. Hudson is the lead in a minor trio of women. As the musical unfolds, the characters find great fame and great hardship, sometimes with each other’s help, other times at one another’s expense. A complex web of relationships is woven of fortune and misfortune alike.

Foxx’s character turns to more shady dealings, as his enthusiasm outpaced by his desire for more power as a record company boss. Eventually, it is discovered that he is working with the Mob and stealing music from other performers. Murphy’s character finds himself turning more to heroin addiction rather than trying to reinvent himself for a changing music market. Hudson’s character finds herself demoted from lead singer to back-up and then right out of the group altogether. All the while, the great talent and giftedness of this gathering of characters goes to waste as power, drugs, and money erode their lives.

In many ways, Dream Girls depicts life, fraught with complexities, and only a few of the characters in this musical find a measure of redemption. The musical feels eerily familiar to the lives we lead, as we deal with choosing wisely or foolishly the paths ahead while dealing with the random and chaotic fallout of life’s ambiguities and travails. All the while, the psalmist sits in the back row with his popcorn, saying, “Didn’t you get the bit in my little song about not chasing the stuff that won’t last?”

The psalm turns us away from the foolishness of this world and reorients us to the way of life that helps us breathe again. The spiritual life is not just for emergencies only or the deeply pious. The Psalms are to accompany you by the bed stand, the dashboard, the cubicle at work, the places where you find a moment’s respite, just as they have been there for ancient Israel and all those generations afterward who seek wisdom. In reorienting ourselves back to God, we remember that the only gift we have in this life, the only asset is life itself. What we make of it can be wonderment as well as disaster, but we are better off starting with the simplicity of the Psalm, geared to that which helps us breathe and give due praise rather than disdain or disregard to God.

Meanwhile, back at the choir rehearsal, I found myself asked to sing one of the solos for the Choral Society concert.  To sing a solo means no matter the rehearsals, there are a number of last minute things still to be figured out. Moreover, I pray the worst not to happen: the unmanly thing of having your voice crack. The most important thing that I will need to do is remember to breathe.

One other deft movement within this Psalm is also noted. While the Psalmist appeals to the individual to turn away from the tempting personal gain thought to be found in this life, the Psalmist reminds us of whom God is. It is not enough that God’s people get themselves straightened out and reoriented to their own little journey in faith. It is also about being able to praise God, the one who is steadfast in support and care of those otherwise marginalized, usually by those same “princes” or “powers that be”. The thing to keep in mind about the “powers” that try to get us to run our lives by their desire is this: they may not last, but their policies and practices can create a world of hurt for the less fortunate of the world that lasts sometimes over the generations. 

God is not like that puff of air that disappears. God is steadfast, or “keeps the faith forever”. Steadfast is a word that the Psalmist uses that you do not use lightly in the vocabulary of the Hebrew Scriptures. To be steadfast means to be undeterred and unshakeable. Again, the Psalmist revels in the irony of human life: we chase all manner of things, only to find that they, and even ourselves, are like a puff of wind. God, the very wind of Creation, is the only stability, and so, again, the Psalmist with the popcorn in the back row says, “Pay attention to what God cares about. It might tell you something.”

The God of Psalm 146 is deeply concerned with those who are less fortunate in this life: the oppressed are given justice; the hungry are fed; the prisoners are liberated; the blind are given sight; the righteous vindicated; the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner are tended. This is the song that ancient Israel and all the generations thereafter are called to sing. Yet, it is not the “happy-clappy” music that some churches call “praise music” where you sing rather shallow words and on the fifth time, you are told “now, sing it with feeling.” No, this sort of Psalm is one that you have to learn to sing, but first you have to learn to breathe! This sort of praise music is not for the faint of heart. As Water Brueggemann observes, when ancient Israel, the community first called to this psalm’s performance, takes up the Psalm of the day, “Israel sings, and we never know what holy power is unleashed by such singing”.

Churches have such a wonderful calling to be the Church, yet sometimes, we have allowed worry to overtake us. The bitter truth: More often than not, we’ve forgotten to breathe, and our praise of God has diminished a bit. The redemptive word: Now we’re back in voice training, learning some new and challenging material. Our backs may hurt, our feet may hurt, but we are more than just tired. We might be ready to start singing.

And the psalmist speaks up again waaay in the back of the crowd, “Now you’re getting it!”

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