How Does Psalm 84 Feel? (A Tribute to Leonard Bernstein on His 100th Birthday)

Tomorrow is Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday, in honor of his life and work, I thought I’d use the ideas from the “Young People’s Concert-What Does Music Mean” and apply to  better understanding scriptural text, Psalm 84.  

What does music mean?  Leonard Bernstein used to say that music doesn’t mean a thing.  Music is just the right combination of notes, arranged in a pattern to evoke particular feelings.  Music may be inspired by certain situations and events (historical, personal, or otherwise).  But when it comes right down to it, the notes, when they’re placed on the page, mean nothing until they’re placed in relation to other notes.  Then, they work together and they might make us feel happy, sad, angry, conflicted, or any other number of emotions.  Alone, a note is a note.  Combined with other notes, we have harmonies. The harmonies themselves do not tell stories.  We provide the stories based off the images and experiences in our lives.  The composer may have had one idea when he or she wrote a symphony or an opera but once the piece is out there, floating in the ether, we start to plug our experiences into to their notes.  Remember, the notes have no meaning. We hear them, as individuals, and give them meaning.  This is the power of music.  This is also the joy of scripture.

Music makes us feel. Notes without meaning (tones in isolation), when married to other notes in the right combination, create emotional reactions.  For example, what do you feel when you hear this?

(God of Grace and God of Glory)

That’s kind of rousing.  It’s one of my favorite hymns.  The tune is from Wales.  In fact you can almost imagine Welsh miners singing other words, perhaps in a pub, to this song.  It gets your blood stirring.  You may feel you want to move, stand, and do something.  You may feel inspired.  There’s sort of a march lying underneath the melody.

How about this one?  (288 Were You There When They Crucified My Lord)

You feel something totally different.  This is 180 degrees opposite from the first tune.  It is slower.  It makes you feel sad, lonely, depressed, and maybe even a little hopeless.  Perhaps it reminds of a time in your life you might want to forget.  The notes are a little plodding.  That plodding has always reminding me of the horses that used to take caskets to the grave.  The feeling you get when you hear this song is nothing at all like the first.  While the first may work like an earworm and stick with you all day, this one, you don’t want these feelings to linger.

Again, I want to remind you how your feelings changed so quickly.  The notes, many of them were the same.  We changed from a major key (G) to a minor key (C minor) and more than anything that made all the difference in the world.  The notes themselves mean nothing; however when we put them together and make that shift from one sharp to three flats, the entire realm of human emotions is up for grabs.

How does the song make us feel?  Where does it take us?  When it’s all put together, how does it make us feel?  This is what music has asked of listeners since the beginning of time.

The Bible asks the same question and then goes one question further.  How does this text make you feel?  Secondly, what are you going to do with this feeling? In other words, how will you respond to what you feel?

There’s no better place to see this at work and ask these questions than in the Bible’s music book, the Psalms.  The Psalms are poems, prayers, and songs.  While we don’t have notes in the conventional musical sense, something that can be played on a piano, guitar or other instrument; the words are our notes.  Whether they are written in Hebrew, English, or some other translated language, these words are words.  In their own right, they do not tell a story on their own.  When compiled, the author or writers might have been inspired by certain ideas, events, and people.  Yet, as we know with any good song, what spoke to that songwriter (let’s call him David) may not speak to us.  We’re not walking in his sandals.  David’s life can’t be contained in the words he chooses or even the melody he might have sung.  The words stand for themselves because we will hear them as we hear them, not as David felt them.  His words will make us feel, not what he feels, but what we feel.  What does this Psalm make us feel?

How does Psalm 84 make you feel?  It’s unlike some of the guilt ridden Psalms David wrote after his adultery with Bathsheba.  This one is decidedly different.  There’s almost something of a burden being lifted and ability to talk to God without the sins of the past getting in the way.

It makes me feel at home.  I think it should, given that it’s talking about a “dwelling place”.  Call it a house, cottage, trailer, camper, or whatever.  There is a sense of belonging in this Psalm.  I hear this and I feel like I belong.  I remember places where I felt I belonged.  By that I remember places of unconditional love in places of unconditional belonging; my grandmother’s house, the home I grew up in, and the church where I was baptized.  Each of those places was marked by being “truly happy”.  How do you feel, hearing those words, “truly happy?”  Home, truly, and happy are all placed together in the same Psalm.  Individually, their meanings could go in countless directions.  Together, they harmonize and create a distinction which is unavoidable.  Is the idea of being truly happy in a place we can call home something we’re able to associate with God?  Is this what the Psalmist is asking us to feel?

Yes.  When I listen and hear Psalm 84, this is what I feel reminded of the presence of God in the places I call home.  There’s a famous verse that’s often quoted from Psalm 84.  Verse 10 says, “Better is a single day in your courtyards than a thousand days anywhere else.” Most people stop there.  However, the verse goes on, “I would prefer to stand outside the entrance of my God’s house than life comfortably in the tents of the wicked.”  This makes me feel justified in being a homebody.  I rather not live in a tent that belonged to God or the wicked.  Staying home with Jesus and my family is more than alright with me.  I don’t feel unsettled or threatened by any of this.  I feel God knows me for who I am and is fine with me being me.

Perhaps that’s why I feel so encouraged by the last few verses, “The Lord gives-doesn’t withhold-good things to those who walk with integrity.  Lord of heavenly forces, those who trust in you are truly happy.”

I do feel truly happy when I hear Psalm 84.  I am taken back to places I’ve called home.  I feel good to know that God’s always been in the picture.  I feel comforted that God loves me.  I feel like God’s not going to make me go camping and that the Lord is fine with me being me.  That’s what I feel.  It’s what I heard.  How about you?

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Richard Lowell Bryant

The Silence of Advent

As a culture, we have trouble adjusting to silence.  Whether it’s our addiction to technology or we’ve grown used to the presence of a hum somewhere in the background, the absence of sound makes us uncomfortable.  Silence forces us to think, speak, and respond.  In worship, if the silent prayers go a little too long, the congregation becomes fidgety.  Background music plays in every restaurant so our conversations at dinner become louder as we strain to hear and be heard.  By the end of the meal, we’re nearly shouting at each other.

In the holiday season, it is impossible to find a quiet moment.  Whether you’re baking cookies or decorating the tree, Christmas music needs to be playing somewhere in the house.  Thanks to wireless home technology and blue tooth speakers, you can listen to Frank Sinatra in one room while the kids listen to their music in the living room.  The perennial birth of Christmas noise recreates itself in venue after venue as we are relieved of the burdens of conversation, listening, and ultimately caring about what’s going on in the world around us.

We’ve made noise a sacred and sentimental part of the Nativity story.  In the Little Drummer Boy, a boy bringing a drum invades the stillness of the holiest night on Earth to distract our focus from the most important interaction between God and humanity.  The sound of his drum and his narcissistic desire to please a Jesus (who wants nothing more than our love) limits our ability to focus on the gift embodied in a God made man.

The Incarnation isn’t something to be read about, footnoted, acknowledged, mentioned in song, and then taken for granted.  It represents the defining moment in human history.  In order to focus on the Incarnation we need as few diversions as possible.

This why many of the other Christmas hymns we sing, songs we know and love, rely heavily on the idea of silence.

“Silent night, holy night, all is calm; all is bright round yon virgin mother and child.  Holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.”  “Silent night, holy night, shepherds quake at the sight; glories stream from heaven afar.”

The Judean sheep people quake. How can one quake calmly and silently?  Is it possible for one to remain even keeled after encountering the Heavenly host?   I would argue not.  Yet, our hymnody and scripture beg to differ.  Silence precedes our first encounter with the divine.  Words, however erudite they may be, cannot do justice to the idea of a God made human.  Songs cannot convey the beauty of the cosmological moment culminating before our eyes.  We are brought to a place of quiescence because there are no adequate words to describe what we are witnessing.    Silence is our only option.

In the second verse of “Away in a Manger”, the lowing cattle awaken the sleeping baby Jesus.  Will the noisy animals provoke the newborn’s emotions?  No, “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”  Critics of “Away in a Manger” point to the unlikely nature of this verse.  “Of course Jesus cried”, they say.  To insist otherwise is to deny his humanity.  Not only this, it creates unreal expectations, imposing Victorian ideas of child rearing that were unhealthy when this song was written in 1887 and certainly not today.

“Away in a Manger” is a fairy tale lullaby that’s no more based in reality than Wynken, Blyken, and Nod.  This doesn’t make it any less true.  The text points us back the idea of silence.  A sleeping Jesus exists in stark contrast to any words we might muster.  In the silence, we’re left to ponder a God who has become a person, a God with no crib, a God surrounded by animals, and a God who made himself so vulnerable he died.

On Christmas Eve we will gather and sing songs extolling the virtues of silence.  Yet, if we sang nothing, the day would find us still redeemed, joyful, and free.   Christmas doesn’t depend on us or on what happens when we’re listening to hymns.  Jesus speaks between the notes, in the rests, the breaths, and the pauses we easily ignore and willingly forget. Occasionally a note or moment of silence strikes us at the right time and place.  It is then we realize, when we are vulnerable and only one person is capable of loving us despite all of our faults, and that’s the silent infant called Jesus.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Yes, The Religious Resistance Needs New Music

1. We sing “We Shall Overcome” like we’re at a funeral. When we sing this song today, there’s a rarely a sense the group of people singing believe they might actually overcome anything.  I think this is an important point.  To be honest, nothing sounds more like dying felines than a group of privileged white clergy attempting to gain civil rights street credibility by moaning out verses of “We Shall Overcome”. Let’s leave it in the hymnbook. We need something positive, upbeat, and a little hipper.

2. “This Little Light of Mine” seems to be the only song religious liberals can agree on. None of us, me included, can clap on the beat. We look ridiculous singing this song. I am a huge fan of “This Little Light of Mine”, particularly at Vacation Bible School. That’s where it ends. Leave it with kids. It’s not the right anthem to use when taking on shield wielding fascists. Stop clapping and defend yourself. Might I suggest Twisted Sisters, “Were Not Going to Take It”?  It’s not a hymn but it sends a message.  I’d settle for “Standing on the Promises”.  Would our Unitarian colleagues be cool with direct references to Jesus?

3. These are the songs you hear at most protests.  I speak from experience.  The religious left’s repertoire is limited. This is shocking, especially if you consider that most mainstream Protestant denominations have HUGE hymnbooks with awesome songs. Let’s find some new material.  This will help the movement.  Share your playlists.  Pump up the jam!

God Only Knows (Genesis 28:10-19 and Psalm 139)

One of the greatest love songs ever written begins with these words, “I may not always love you”.  The writer continues, “I’ll make you so sure about it.  God only knows what I’d be without you.”  How do you start, perhaps the greatest love song of the 20th century, with an acknowledgment of amorous doubt?  It would seem to be counter-intuitive to whole idea of a love song.  Brian Wilson was a musical genius in his ability to blend sounds, notes, and compose melodies.  He also understood a little something about poetry.

The first line of the song is not a statement of doubt.  The song’s title isn’t an expression of exasperation.  This love song, which you’ve heard hundreds of times, is more like a Psalm and prayer, than a Top 40 hit.  Why?  The first line and the title do two important things also shown by our scripture readings this morning:  one is an admission of vulnerability.  The other is an awareness of God’s presence.  Vulnerability and awareness: if we want to be fully aware of God’s presence it means becoming vulnerable.  For instance, I may not always love you (that makes me pretty vulnerable to admit this) but by acknowledging that I’m unable to love now or even into eternity without God, my inherently flawed promises are less important.  They are, however, backed by the full faith and credit of the creator of the universe.  My vulnerability, nor my promises, exists in isolation.  That’s what Wilson says.

It is much the same way for Jacob.  Most of know Jacob’s story the same we know the Beach Boys; we grew up listening to his song.  “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder; soldiers of the cross.”  You’ve been singing that one since before you heard “Help Me, Rhonda”.  However, when we look closely, there’s much more to this story than a ladder or stairway to heaven.

Jacob is a man on the run from time itself:  the past, present, and future.  At one point, Jacob thought very little of his family and friends.  He robbed his brother of the most precious gift he might ever receive, his birthright.  Lie begat lie.  Jacob was an outlaw among a displaced people. Physically, he belonged nowhere.  Spiritually, he was disconnected from the God of his father and grandfather. His past was dead, the present was dying, and the future would not exist.  The only way to survive was to keep moving toward whatever existed beyond the horizon.  Fight those in your path.  In stopping, he risked death.

Sleep was his greatest enemy. At night, when the memories of Isaac and Esau could not be banished and his legs were too weak to move, he hid in the darkness; among the rocks.  When Jacob stopped he became vulnerable.  When Jacob could no longer walk he became vulnerable.  Sleep and rest opened the door to Jacob’s greatest vulnerability.

The dream, the one with the famous ladder, isn’t hard to interpret.  Jacob is most vulnerable when is when he’s confronted with the idea of being related and connected to other people.  That’s Jacob’s issue.   In the dream, God speaks to him about descendants, springing forth from the dust.  God promises to protect Jacob and those descendants.  Jacob is the consummate loner.  This dream touches him at his most vulnerable point.  He wants to be connected.  Jacob desires community, fellowship, and family.  But he can’t!  He’s burned those bridges.  Yes he has.  They are well and truly burned.

However, here is the good news.  At our weakest and most vulnerable points, this is where we become aware of God’s presence.  God is already present and involved in our lives.  Until we acknowledge our vulnerability, our need to be completely open about who we are with the world and God; it’s hard to realize (or accept) God is messing around in your world.

Look at what Jacob says when he awakes.  For me, this is the most important part of this story.  It’s a verse I see repeated in my life time and time again.  “The Lord is (present tense) definitely in this place but I didn’t know it.”  He became aware of God’s presence and admitted, “I didn’t know it”.  Have you ever walked away from an encounter like this?  I’ve never walked away from brush or encounter with the divine where it wasn’t preceded by a feeling of intense vulnerability.  God should throw us off balance, make us a little nervous, cause some butterflies in our stomach, and leave you feeling a little stunned.  When you find yourself opening up in a conversation to a stranger then you ask yourself, “I don’t what happened?”  Maybe that was a God moment?  God is in the place, are you aware?

The Bible thinks and speaks clearly about the most powerful human emotions.  Vulnerability and awareness are essential for maintaining healthy communities as well as seeing God at work in the world around us.  It’s also evident in this morning’s Psalm.  Doesn’t it seem like the Psalmist is writing directly to us?

Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

Can there be a greater acknowledgement of our vulnerability?  “You have searched me and known me”.  God knows us in our totality.  Before God, nothing is hidden.  God is aware of every aspect of our lives.  Even before we speak, God knows our thoughts.  The more God knows about us, the more God is aware of our lives.  Awareness is care, awareness is love.  For the Psalmist, even for me, this is overwhelming.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

As Jacob realized, at our most vulnerable, when we are sleeping, God is present and aware.  Here’s where God’s idea of vulnerability becomes visionary. The Psalmist says that God becomes vulnerable for us.  Yes, vulnerability is central to our awareness of God’s presence in our lives.  The Psalmist takes this vision one step further.  God becomes vulnerable for us.  We worship a vulnerable God.  A God, who, if we make our bed in Sheol (hell) is already in hell waiting to bring us home.  This is a God who will wait for us in hell.

God becomes vulnerable for us.  What’s more vulnerable than a baby born in a stable? What’s more vulnerable than an innocent put to death?  What was it the Roman centurion said, after Jesus died, when confronted with Jesus’ vulnerability?  He became aware of the presence of God.

When we allow ourselves, like Jacob and Psalmist to open up and be vulnerable to God’s presence in our lives, we will discover something:  God is in the place and we didn’t even know it.

God embraced vulnerability for us.  To do the same seems the least we can do for God.

A Wedding Homily for Later This Afternoon

Saint Paul makes a valiant attempt to compare love to the other spiritual gifts we receive from the Holy Spirit.  By means of contrast, love is the greatest gift of all, out pacing prophecy, speaking in tongues, and even faith.  We kind of get that, don’t we?  Love is a big deal.  However, if you’re not readily familiar with prophets, tongue speakers, and really faithful things; love only seems kind of important.  To really get how important love ought to be, we need our own equivalents to prophecy, tongues, and first century ideas of faith.  I think this would help clarify this passage we’ve all heard hundreds of times.

Let me tell you what I love.  I love tomato sandwiches made from fresh tomatoes grown out of my parent’s garden.  I love those sandwiches to be made with Duke’s Mayonnaise.  I love grits.  I love bacon prepared in my grandmother’s cast iron frying pan.  I love the understand genius of Conway Twitty.  I love driving by little country churches between here and where I grew up and thinking, “I bet there’s some good preaching going on in there Sunday mornings.”  I love looking off into the distance where a corn field meets the tree line.  I love going to the Waffle House on Friday afternoons when people get off work and listen to them talk about their week so I can shape my prayers.  I love all these things.

However, if I don’t have love for my wife or my family, my grits are tasteless and bland, no matter how much salt and butter I add.  If my love for my wife and family are absent, I won’t hear a word that Bible thumping preacher says.  Without the love of my wife, the frying pan will never be seasoned and the bacon won’t be crispy.  The love for my wife is what makes the flavor of the tomatoes come alive once they’re off the vine.  Kevin and April, love is the greatest gift of all.  It is a big deal.  As you become husband and wife today, I challenge you to think of the most important things in your life.  Ask yourselves, what do you love?   Whatever they are, they’ll never be as meaningful without the others loving presence.

Richard Lowell Bryant