06/30/19 “Praying the Contented Psalms”

Psalm 104

The past few days have been absolutely beautiful.  After so many days of gray skies and constant rain, the sky was a deep cloudless blue. The trees and the lawns are such a lush green.  I’ve been riding my bicycle and, every once in a while, I’ll ride through a spot where the air is sweet with the scent of mock orange.  I’ve sat on my deck and watched a moving rainbow of blue jays, cardinals, goldfinches, and woodpeckers swooping through my yard.

When we have days like these, when the beauty of God’s creation is impossible to ignore, we may be moved to prayers of thanks and joy.  Actually, we should be moved to offer prayers of thanks and joy! It’s easy to toss off a quick, “Thanks, God, for this great day.”  But what about those times when we want pray with more heart, with more devotion? Where can we find words that lead us into that kind of prayer, when we feel a deep sense of contentment with the world God has created?

We can find them in the Psalms, especially the ones like Psalm 104, which we read part of as our Call to Worship.  Scholars call these kinds of psalms by various names: psalms of orientation, creation psalms, or even simply “hymns.”  But they all express a recognition of God as the Creator and Supreme Ruler of everything, and that the world God created is an orderly, reliable place.  That’s why I call them psalms of contentment.  Whether what we are feeling is exuberant joy that we need to spill out before we explode, or a more quiet contemplation that gently fills us with a deep sense of peace, these psalms give us ancient words to express a very present-day feeling: a sense of being secure in the world God has created.

One of the things that the psalms of contentment have in common is that they begin and end with the psalmist speaking to himself.  He calls his own soul to attention.  “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” he says.  The Hebrew word the psalmist uses for “bless” means turning our whole being toward God—turning away from the to-do list in front us, the increasingly full inbox, the TV shows we want to catch up on. When we call on our souls to bless God, we intentionally make God the center of our attention. We kneel in praise, in our hearts if not on our knees.  We gather our senses and aim them toward a single focal point: what Walter Brueggemann calls “the life-giving power of creation [which is] a reflection of the Creator.”

I was recently talking with the mother whose little boy has autism.  When she wanted to have a conversation with him, she would call his name and, when he looked her way, she would say, “Look at my eyes.”  She helped him to focus his attention solely on her.  Often my soul is a bit like that little boy.  I have a hard time focusing. I’m easily distracted by everything that’s going on around me. I need to get my soul’s attention, calling it by name and focusing it on the conversation we’re about to have. Praying the psalms which begin by calling our own souls to bless God helps us focus and leads us into deeper communion with God.

After the psalmist has his soul fully engaged, he begins his prayer of praise.  We read just part of it, but the rest goes on in a way that reminds me of the kids’ song “the leg bone’s connected to the knee bone…” The psalmist begins with water springing from the mountaintops.  That water pours through the valleys. The water in the valley quenches the thirst of wild animals and birds, waters trees where birds can nest, and it causes grass and plants to grow.  The grass provides food for animals and the plants provide wine, bread, and oil for people.  Water is tamed; it has its place, and through it, God provides for creation in an orderly way. All is right with God’s world, which is a place of security and contentment.

Time is orderly, too. Day becomes night, when creatures come out of hiding and predators look for prey. Night becomes day, and people begin their daily work until day becomes night one again.  All is right with God’s world, which is a place of security and contentment.

This prayer is more than just a catalogue of God’s marvelous works.  It is a statement about what we believe to be true about God.  First of all, it is a statement of faith in God, who is the Creator of all things.  Living creatures, inanimate objects, and even time are God’s creation and are under God’s control.  It is God’s spirit that has created this world, and God’s breath sustains all of it, us included. God is so much greater than what God has created, that God can take light itself and wear it like a garment and use the entire sky like a tent.  God’s house is the entire universe, which is simply our word for the biggest thing we can imagine.  The psalms of contentment give us words to affirm that God is the Creator of all things.

Psalms of contentment  also declare that God is the Ruler of all things. Even the things that seem to be least controllable—the sea, the wind, the lightning that blazes across the sky—even these are under God’s control.  The sea, usually seen as a place of danger and chaos, is a playground for God’s creatures, large and small.  The psalmist’s Canaanite neighbors thought that their god Baal rode the clouds, and commanded the wind and lightning.  “Not so!” the psalmist says.  The clouds belong to God, and the wind and lightning are at God’s beck and call like obedient servants. The psalms of contentment are, as John Calvin said, “intended to strengthen our confidence [about] the future, that we may not live in the world in a constant state of fear and anxiety.”  The psalms of contentment give us words to express our sense of safety and security to God.

The psalms of contentment help us to acknowledge that God’s orderly, dependable creation is a reflection of God’s dependable love. Living in a world that can be trusted is a sign that the God who created it can be trusted.  Living in a world that has dependable cycles of day and night, work and rest, growth and harvest, points to a God who cares enough about the world to give it a sustainable order.  The psalms of contentment give us words to speak to God about God’s unwavering, faithful love for us as we see it in creation.

What we learn about God from creation is no different from what Jesus taught while he walked the earth.  God is our Creator.  God rules over all, and we live in God’s kingdom.  God loves us with an unwavering love, so much so that God chose to enter into creation in a human body—a body that would have experienced all that the psalmist felt and that we feel.  It is easy to imagine Jesus praying this prayer—perhaps in a rare moment when he was alone on a hillside, under the shade of an olive tree, or watching the sun come up on the Galilee, listening to the waves lap at the shore, the plop of a fish rising and falling back into the water, and the screech of gulls overhead.  Or, maybe he prayed it together with his disciples, since it was part of their shared prayer book, just as it is ours.

But, even as we bask in the sense of contentment expressed in this prayer and others like it, we may feel a little undercurrent of uneasiness.  What about when creation doesn’t feel so dependable.  What about when those winds who are God’s messengers take the form of tornadoes that destroy everything in their path?  What about when the water comes in floods, or doesn’t come at all?  What about when the flames of the heavens produce flames that race through earthly communities? It’s okay to ask these questions.  Unfortunately, I can’t say I have any satisfactory answers. Instead, let me offer four observations.

The first one is that God’s timeframe is long and ours is short.  As another psalm says, “a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it is past.”  Although we have times of drought and times of flood, gentle breezes one day and gale force winds another, from a God’s-eye view, the world remains a predictable place.  In fact, Psalm 104 says that God didn’t eliminate those things which can cause disruption. God sets boundaries for them, but they continue to exist and influence our world in ways we may not understand. As we pray our prayers of contentment, we should pray with a sense of humility because, as verse 24 of our psalm says, God created the world in wisdom, even though we may not be able to grasp that wisdom.

Second, the prayers of contentment are just one kind of prayer that we find in the psalms, and in fact they are the smallest group.  There are many more that wrestle with the feelings and questions that come in the midst of pain, confusion, and fear.  I think it’s safe to say that psalter covers just about every emotion we can feel, but not in every psalm.  Each psalm addresses particular experiences—contentment and dismay, confidence and fear, certainty and uncertainty.  We’ve been blessed with a book that gives voice to all our feelings, and the more we get to know these prayers, the faster we’ll be able to reach for the one we need, when we need it.

The third observation is that human beings have a great capacity for selective amnesia.  During times of contentment, we can forget about the times that weren’t so good in the past, and vice versa.  Contentment can also bring on a kind of near-sightedness in the present.  When things are going well for us, we tend not so see the challenges that others face, and to dismiss them as unimportant if we do. This is especially true when we are on the comfortable side of any “ism” or phobia.  Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism, ageism, ableism (which, if that’s a new one for you, is discrimination against those with a disability): these are just a few of the “isms” and phobias that keep us from acknowledging the experiences of others.

We don’t like it when others disrupt our sense of well-being. by telling us that they don’t share it.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate the things of God that bring us joy and offer prayers that express our gratitude.  But as we pray our prayers of contentment, we should allow them to challenge us to look back and look around at what denies others the contentment we enjoy, and to move us to do what we can to make it possible for them to live contented and secure lives, too.

Finally, as our prayer suggests, we need to remember that human beings have an impact on God’s creation.  The psalmist prays, “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.”  This is not a suggestion to God that the world would be perfect without sinners in it.  In the context of this prayer, with its focus on God’s creation, this is a reminder that while God has provided all that is needed for life in our world, people can disrupt the order God created.

In our psalm prayer, we tell God that we understand that everything comes from God and belongs to God.  Genesis tells us that humanity was commissioned to cultivate and keep the earth, or, translated another way, to serve it and protect it.  To the extent that we work to serve and protect God’s creation, we become partners with God. To misuse and exploit the earth for selfish purposes—whether for our individual wants or our national desires—is sin, and to the extent that we contribute to that misuse, we are the sinners the psalmist speaks of.  As we pray our prayers of contentment, we should allow them to convict us of our own actual or potential interference with God’s orderly and fruitful creation.  We should allow them to move us to be the stewards and caretakers God commissioned us to be.

I imagine that’s why the psalmist closed his prayer with a kind of “note to self.”  “Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord!”  The psalmist calls himself anew to praise and worship of God, which is the starting point of our care for the world which God has entrusted to us.

Neither the contentment nor the challenges expressed in this prayer are unique to us.  That’s why it has stood the test of time, from the days when it was first prayed and sung aloud, to the time of the exile when it was prayed by the Jewish people in Babylon, to the days of Qumran, where it was written down in what we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Later in the 1st century CE, the author of the letter to the Hebrews relied on it as he—or she—presented Jesus as the “exact imprint of God’s very being,” the One who created the earth and heavens, the One who rules over all, the One who whose word and breath sustains all things, the One whose love for us is dependable and unwavering. Thousands of years after it was composed, this prayer becomes our prayer.

We are blessed to live in a world created by God to give us a deep sense of contentment. We are blessed to have, in the prayer book we call the Psalms, prayers that help us express to God our feelings of security and contentment. May we pray these prayers of contentment as the great cloud of witnesses has prayed them before us.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young