Psalm 95 – Worship and Whining

Psalm 95 verse 4, by Cecelia Nedlin

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
    let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving
    and extol him with music and song.

For the Lord is the great God,
    the great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth,
    and the mountain peaks belong to him.
The sea is his, for he made it,
    and his hands formed the dry land.

Come, let us bow down in worship,
    let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
for he is our God
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    the flock under his care.

Today, if only you would hear his voice,
“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
    as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested me;
    they tried me, though they had seen what I did.
For forty years I was angry with that generation;
    I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
    and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
(New International Version)

Revelation and Response

Praise and thanksgiving. Complaining and grumbling. These two sets of words are antithetical to each other. Yet, out of the same mouth can come both worship and whining. Maybe the psalmist was trying to teach us a thing or two by inviting us to sing and bow to the Lord, as well as hear God’s voice.

Worship and listening are meant to go hand in hand. Revelation and response are to be the spiritual rhythm of the believer. True worship is a divine conversation between us and God. The Lord speaks. We listen and answer. Back and forth we go together. God and God’s people are in dialogue.

When the worship rhythm is off, then our response will be off. And that is what happened to the ancient Israelites. They were miraculously delivered from their cruel bondage in Egypt. You can imagine the kind of praise and worship service the people had in the desert! After four-hundred years of slavery, freedom!

The Rhythm is Off

Before you know it, the thanksgiving turned sour into grumbling. At the first instance of adversity, when there was no water to drink, it was as if the people had some sort of collective dementia set in. Suddenly, hardness of heart. Talk about fickle! One minute hands are raised in praise, the next minute, those same hands clench into fists shaking at God.

The people forgot that this was an ongoing dialogue – not a one and done conversation of revelation and response. God acted by delivering the people. The people responded with praise and thanksgiving. And they didn’t want it to stop. Yet, all of life is a rhythm. What goes up, comes down. Good times eventually fade into tough times. The real muster of any person or group is the response when the hardship comes.

God knew exactly what he was doing. The Lord purposely brought the Israelites out into the desert to face a difficult circumstance. God was teaching them to trust. The Lord wanted a response of faith and prayer to the adverse situation. But the people weren’t looking for a dialogue. They were looking for water. And when they didn’t have it, their hearts hardened through murmuring, bellyaching, and dissatisfaction.

However, God was still in the conversation. The generation who saw the incredible deliverance from bondage would die in the desert, never setting eyes on the Promised Land. And it all began because of grumbling.

Complaining is Unhealthy

We need to take complaining seriously. Why? Because it rots the soul, like Mr. Grinch who incessantly complained every year about Christmas. Grumbling makes one into a Grinch-like creature, like the song says:

You’re as cuddly as a cactus
You’re as charming as an eel…

You got termites in your smile
You have all the tender sweetness
Of a seasick crocodile…

Your heart’s an empty hole
You got garlic in your soul.

It was only when the Grinch forsook his isolation of complaining and began connecting in conversation with the folks in Whoville, that he had his rhythm restored.

The Need for Encouragement

When our rhythm is off kilter, what will it take to get it back? The author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews helps us here. After quoting our psalm lesson for today, the writer responded to the biblical revelation by saying:

Be careful, brothers and sisters, that none of you ever develop a wicked, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. Encourage each other every day while you have the opportunity. If you do this, none of you will be deceived by sin and become stubborn. After all, we will remain Christ’s partners only if we continue to hold on to our original confidence until the end. Scripture says, “If you hear God speak today, don’t be stubborn. Don’t be stubborn like those who rebelled.”

Hebrews 3:12-15, God’s Word Translation

Revelation and response are the rhythmic dynamism of the Christian community. Lone Ranger Christians are an oxymoron, as well as moronic. We are hard-wired by God for community. All of us need to encourage one another – every day. Without the communal connections of encouraging conversations, it will be difficult to sustain a divine dialogue of God speaking, with people listening and responding in obedient faith.

Celebration is wonderful. We need times and experiences of celebrating deliverance from bondage. Eventually, when Christ returns, there will be unending worship in the form of jubilation. That time is not yet here. This side of heaven, we must learn to engage God in ways which address our hardships and difficulties. Otherwise, our hearts will become stubborn and hard.

Let your heart become open enough to receive encouragement. And let it also be brave enough to encourage others.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you caused earthly pain to be holy. And you gave us the example of obedience to your Father’s will. Be near me in my time of weakness and pain. Sustain me by your grace so that my strength and courage may not fail. Heal me according to you will. Help me always believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. Amen.

What Will It Take to Change the World?

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Recently, I stood among a gathered group of people, most of whom I did not know.  I was there for a memorial service.  A few short months ago, a fellow colleague received the kind of news that no one wants to hear.  In a matter of weeks, she was gone.  Not every funeral I attend (or even officiate) is beautiful.  This one was.  And I’ll state from the outset why I believe it was: the collective experience of both joy and sorrow.

I walked away from my friend’s remembrance with a clear conviction – one that had been percolating and forming within me for quite some time.  This conviction might seem exaggerated, yet it by no means is meant to be.  It’s just what I have come to believe about the universal human experience.  It comes from the confidence and experience of a lifetime of observation and ministry.  It is neither merely a heartfelt sentiment nor a passing feeling.  No, it really is a conviction, a firm principle or persuasion.  It is this:

Crying with strangers in person has the power to change the world.

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I think I’ve always known this.  It just crystallized for me through this experience.  After all, I have watched with awe the privilege I have to walk into a dying patient’s room, full of tearful family, and enter with them into their pain.  The sharing of stories is powerful, eliciting both great joy, reminiscent laughter, and profound gratitude; as well as tremendous sorrow, grinding grief, and sad lament.  Tears and celebration mix in a sacred alchemy producing a kind of care which transcends description.

It’s one thing to observe other’s joy and sorrow on the news, or even from afar.  It is altogether a different reality to participate up close and personal.  It’s something akin to watching a travel documentary on Yellowstone Park versus visiting the place in person; there’s just no comparison.  Shared human experiences of grief will nearly always translate into new and emerging capacities for empathy.  And where empathy exists, there is hope for all humanity.  Being with another person or group of people in their suffering creates a Grinch-like transformation in which our hearts suddenly enlarge.  A single tear from a singular small little Who in Whoville had the power to penetrate years of hardness of heart and change what everyone thought was a shriveled soul full of garlic and gunk.

Image result for well in whoville they say the grinch's heart grew three sizes that day

If I need to say this a different way, I’ll do it: The spiritual and emotional heart of a human being is able to shrink or expand.  It shrinks from spending far too much time alone and/or holding others at bay, at arms-length, while playing the armchair critic to those whom are out rubbing shoulders with real flesh and blood people.  Conversely, the heart can grow and expand.  The Grinch never went back to his isolation.  Instead, he did what Whoville thought was the unbelievable: The Grinch fully participated in the joy of the community, up close and personal.  It was full-bore holding of hands, singing, and eating – which illustrates a conviction I’ve held for a long time:

Hospitality, that is, showing love to outright strangers through celebration and participation with food and drink has the power to change the world.

And if I need to be demonstrative, I will: Hospitality cannot happen from afar; sitting around the table with strangers and interacting with them is needed; it alters our perspectives so that we live our shared humanity.  It is rather difficult to hate someone when you get to know them and discover their loves and joys, hurts and wounds.

This all leads toward asking one of the most fundamental and basic biblical questions that must be asked by every generation and considered by everyone who respects God and/or the Christian Scriptures:

Am I able to see the image of God in someone very different from myself?

The Christian doesn’t have to go very far to answer this one, at least from an objective cerebral perspective.  Jesus saw the humanity in everyone he encountered, from Jew to Gentile, from sinner to saint.  In fact, Jesus saw this image so deeply within another that he sat around the table and ate with people whom others saw as not worthy to eat with.  Jesus’ willingness to participate in the hospitality of strangers was downright scandalous.  It isn’t a stretch to say that it got him killed.

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What’s more, Jesus wept.  He cried in public with strangers.  For followers of Christ who seek to emulate him in his practical ministry, that point ought to be noticed.  After all, we choose to remember and participate in the life of Christ through the elements of bread and wine at the Table.  God’s radical hospitality toward us is truly meant to translate to an open heart toward those who look and act differently than me.

Public policy and even public theology are necessary and important.  Yet, unless policies and theologies and philosophies are buttressed with a foundation of basic human respect and dignity that has been borne of lived experience with strangers, those policies, philosophies, and even theologies have the power to denigrate and destroy rather than build-up and support.

The great fourteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich, a female devotee of Christ and an influential theologian in her own right among a world of men who tended to see the image of God in women as flawed, understood what it would take to reawaken image-bearing humanity.  She stated, “All that is contrary to peace and love — is in us and not in God. God’s saving work in Jesus of Nazareth and in the gift of God’s spirit, is to slake [lessen] our wrath in the power of his merciful and compassionate love.”

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The Apostle John put it this way: “We love because he [Christ] first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

Don’t think for a minute that crying with strangers is an easy thing for me.  Truth is, crying is not something I typically do, or even like to do.  Yet, constrained by the love of God in Christ, and putting myself in a position to feel with the emotions of others in front of me, I have come to allow and embrace those tears.

We now know that the act of crying produces endorphins which is the body’s way of bringing emotional comfort.  When we apply that understanding to a collective group of people sharing tears together, we end up with a communal sense of solidarity and succor.

Yes, collective experiences of emotion have the power to change the world.  Yet, this occurs only if we show up.  Perhaps this is the reason for the Christian doctrine of the incarnation: Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us, the One who is present.  He showed up, and salvation happened.