Friday, February 10, 2017

Learning to Breathe Again (Psalm 146)

This Sunday morning, I am the guest preacher at a church in a time of pastoral transition.  Led by a very able interim minister, the church has benefited from the careful time of being in discernment about its future and processing how it understands its identity, mission and its past history.  

As a Region staff member involved with the pastoral search and call support to the church, I thought about the best text for the Sunday morning service with such a context outlined above.  I opted to share a sermon around the 146th Psalm that calls us to praise and to remember to Whom we have our very breath--if we remember to breathe!

When I moved from Kansas City to Bennington, Vermont, years ago for a new pastoral call, I joined the local Choral Society. It was the first time since college to be part of a choir singing really more demanding material.  After the first night, I came home exhausted. We rehearsed for two full hours.  While it was stimulating and engaging, my feet hurt from standing, my voice hurt from singing a few notes I had forgotten how to reach up above the comforts of the bass clef.
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, 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. 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 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.
In my exploits of rejoining a choir, I found myself assigned to sing one of the solos during one of the programs.  For most of us who sing but have no designs at being a professional, it's not just something you go out and belt out like it is American Idol.  I found myself obsessing about number of last minute things. Moreover, I pray the worst not to happen: the unmanly thing of having your voice crack. The most important thing to remember: breathe.
I started with the Choral Society as a way to have something beyond the church on a weekly basis.  (Pastors need something like that.  Some find it on the golf course.  Others find it in the choir room.)  Most weeks, I found myself dragging on the way there for a Monday night practice, wore out still from Sunday and frankly sometimes I found myself sometimes pondering, “Should I just go home and hide?” or worse, “Should I go back to the office and keep working?”  (For others, you might find this a familiar conversation with yourself regarding going to the gym.)
However, I kept going, just to give me something that does not involve the rigors of parish life. Ironically, the group sang mostly sacred music, but it is nice just to concentrate on the music without having to think of leading worship, answering email, and figuring several impossible parish matters out before breakfast, because the choral rehearsal is able to turn me back to praise.
During most Monday rehearsals, I would go home with my feet hurting, my back hurting, my voice is weary, but at choir, I find myself breathing more easily. The same could be said for the work of ministry: feet hurt, back hurts, voice weary, but if I can learn to breathe, I’ll find myself leaving behind stress and the seduction of “getting things done” or worse, trying to be “the best”. Instead, I might just find myself getting around to the most important thing: praise.
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.
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. As Water Brueggemann says 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”. This sort of praise music is not for the faint of heart!
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 says, “Pay attention to what God cares about. It might tell you something.”
I encourage you to talk to one another about ways that you feel God calling you to breathe together as a church.  When you catch your breath, it’s often because you are winded, but it also helps you return to a time where balance can be restored.  When a church has a pastor depart, it can be a time of breathlessness—anxiety, nerves and residual feelings left unprocessed as a pastor departs and the “what’s next?” questions mix together.  During your transition with Pastor Bill, he has encouraged you to think about these concerns and feelings, work through ways to address short-term and long-term needs, and to feel strengthened by the transition and its opportunities for change more than frightened or overwhelmed by them.
You have done this because you have remembered to breathe.  You have done this because you remembered to breathe together.  You have done this because you know from Whom your very breath comes.
Let’s sing our praises to the Lord!  AMEN!

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