Getting into the Praise Habit

1 11 2009

I love the book of Leviticus!

Sometimes when I tell people this, they sort of smile and nod, and back away slowly.

I get it.  Leviticus isn’t necessarily the most “fun” book to read, or the most approachable.  It’s filled with laws, instructions for sacrifices, prescriptions for punishment, cleanliness standards.  (and a few great one-liners).  It gets up close and personal (and just plain gross) with details about bodily discharges, scabby sores, and mildew.  It’s easy to write off the entire book as archaic, or worse, irrelevant.

I love it anyway.

In the beginning of the book, God devotes a whole seven chapters to the Israelite’s system of sacrifice.  In true Levitical form, He goes into great detail: what kind of animals to sacrifice, how to choose the animals for sacrifice, what parts to sacrifice, what parts to give to the priest.  Apparently, this is important stuff.  And if God thinks it’s important, then we certainly should be paying attention.

But later in the Bible, God starts telling his people, “I hate your sacrifices and burnt offerings.”

That’s not so shocking to us today.  After all, we don’t go around sacrificing goats and bulls; yet we manage to worship God just fine.  It seems self-evident that God doesn’t need burnt offerings.

In the Israelite culture, however, these sort of statements were a big deal.  It would be like God coming down and saying, “I really hate the music that you play in church on Sunday morning.”

Our first reaction might be defensive — “What’s wrong with the music?  Our musicians are really talented, and they practice for the service to make sure they get all of the notes right.”

But in Psalm 50, God makes clear that they weren’t doing anything wrong:

This is God, your God,
speaking to you.
I don’t find fault with your acts of worship,
the frequent burnt sacrifices you offer.

But why should I want your blue-ribbon bull,
or more and more goats from your herds?
Every creature in the forest is mine,
the wild animals on all the mountains.
I know every mountain bird by name;
the scampering field mice are my friends.
If I get hungry, do you think I’d tell you?
All creation and its bounty are mine.
Do you think I feast on venison?
or drink draughts of goats’ blood?
Spread for me a banquet of praise,
serve High God a feast of kept promises,
And call for help when you’re in trouble—
I’ll help you, and you’ll honor me.”

David Crowder reflects on the psalm as follows:
“I would be so bold as to say eating barbecue and wearing the sauce on your fingers and face and a grin as big as Texas with the knowledge that Caps Lock GOD is at the center of this can be truer praise than belting this ‘song ritual’ that we have elevated to dangerous heights…We, like, the Israelites, often find rescue in the burnt offering and not in the GOD who is the source of all.  We find comfort in the song and not in the Comforter.  It is a subtle but necessary shift.  It is more difficult to find the Creator in a barbecue sandwich than in your favorite Sunday-morning song, but when you do, when you begin to find Him in all the stuff of life, everything starts singing.  Every moment breaks into song.  Every breath becomes sacrifice, and the songs become sweetness.  This is living praise.”

(Praise Habit, page 82)

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Back to Crowder: Psalm 40

11 10 2009

BK01I first discovered the 40th psalm during my sixth grade Sunday School class, and it has been one of my favorites ever since.  (Although I suspect that the reason I picked this particular psalm had less to do with its message and more with the fact that it used the word “mire,” which I thought was a great word).  So, it was fun to come back to this passage through the book’s Lectio Divina approach (although, the Message translation uses the word “ditch” instead of “mire,” which took out a little bit of the fun).

This psalm is about being rescued, and it is about waiting patiently for that rescue.  Crowder compares it to the show Gilligan’s Island (or perhaps, its modern-day equivalent??); with every episode, the viewer watches as the characters get themselves into some kind of predicament, knowing that the situation will be resolved by the end of the show.

But that’s not what keeps the viewers coming back.  Throughout the whole overarching narrative of the show, the viewers (and the characters) are waiting for a bigger kind of rescue, the kind which will finally take them back home from the shipwrecked island.

And isn’t that the story of the entire Old Testament?  From Abraham, to Joseph, to Moses, to Joshua, to Gideon, to David, to Jonah…none of these characters are perfect.  They always get into trouble, and in spite of their mistakes and flaws, God always comes to their physical rescue.  But throughout the Tanakh, there are hints of another kind of rescue that is coming, one which we recognize as being fulfilled through the person of Jesus Christ.  This rescue is of a spiritual nature, intended for all of humanity: one which will finally bring us home.

We are living out these two stories, as well.  I’m reminded of a certain exchange in John 6 between Jesus and his disciples:

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

So they asked him, “What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

This passage occurs right after Jesus finishes feeding 5,000 people with just five barley loaves and two fish.  Yes, he is able to satiate our earthly desires, and provide us with all we need to satisfy our physical hunger.  But that’s not the whole story, nor is that even the most important part of the story!  He also has the solution to our spiritual hunger, an eternal solution.  This is the “big rescue” that we have been awaiting.  This is the final episode.





Worship in the Storm: Psalm 29

22 09 2009

BK01Lately, I have lapsed in my Lectio Divina readings.  However, I recently discovered that my fifteen-minute break at work is the perfect amount of time to read a chapter from David Crowder’s book Praise Habit.  Then, I can meditate on the psalm as I return to my shirt-folding. Yesterday was my first day to implement this plan, and I read Psalm 29, appropriately enough during one of the worst floods in Atlanta’s history.

God‘s thunder sets the oak trees dancing
A wild dance, whirling; the pelting rain strips their branches.
We fall to our knees—we call out, “Glory!”

Above the floodwaters is God‘s throne
from which his power flows,
from which he rules the world

On Sunday, I attended a new church and through a series of events, ended up talking with one of the pastors for about half an hour before the service began.  She had just returned from a mission trip to Gulfport, Miss., where her group had done relief work for Katrina (yes, it’s still going on.  And apparently, UMCOR is the only remaining NGO in that particular area that is still receiving money to provide services)  She told me about a Catholic church they had visited in Waveland, Miss., whose gorgeous sanctuary had been demolished during the hurricane.

St. Clare's Catholic Church - before and after

St. Clare's Catholic Church - before and after

How eerie.  The first thing you notice, of course, is the difference in the church building.  But look again at the tree, and the way it has been twisted completely around.

The NIV translation of Psalm 29 reads, “The voice of the LORD twists the oaks.”

But what of the Message translation?  How can this transformation possibly be described with the word “dancing?”  That wording conjures up the image of a sardonic puppeteer-God who forces us to dance while we are, in fact, contorting in pain.  What kind of God is that?

To me, the Message translation highlights the tension inherent in worship.  Yes, we worship in freedom and with joy.  But true worship also requires that we recognize the omnipotence of God, and that fact can be rather frightening.  This is why Scripture tells us to “fear God:” not because we need to cower  in terror at his presence, but because we should humble ourselves and kneel before our God!

In the context of this particular Psalm, we (humans) are not the ones doing the dancing.  We are simply watching God at work, and responding by recognizing his power within the events of the world.  We are exhorted to “ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name.”

Here, too, I think we can learn from the example of Saint Clare’s.  Following the storm, they put up a sign that testified, with one simple sentence, the power of God as they had experienced it:

st-clare-sign





Sky-jewelry and God’s Detergent

7 08 2009

BK01I have heard criticism of Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” Bible translation before, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind could ever question the poetry he creates within the Psalms.  I’m floored that he could take a passage as well-known as Psalm 8, and repaint it in colors dazzling enough to give pause to even the most seasoned of Bible-readers …  And that he could piece together phrases to describe the sky like “your macro-skies, dark and enormous,” or  “your handmade sky-jewelry.”

The verse itself is like an onomatopoeia (you know, the words that sound like their meaning? Pop! Hiss!  Whirr! etc.)  Except in this case, the poetic description of the vast universe has given me a heightened awareness of the “poetry” within God’s creation throughout the universe.

Is there anything more beautiful than God's own poetry?
Is there anything more beautiful than God’s own poetry?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Before I even made it that far within the psalm, I got held up by the very first verse:

God, brilliant Lord, yours is a household name.

At first I was thinking of household brand names and began imagining the limits of Christian consumerism: God’s detergent perhaps, or Jesus Air Freshener: Smells Like Purification? (no joke, this one actually exists.  I bought it for Jordan a few years ago)

But the psalmist is talking about a different kind of household name.  He’s talking about — who or what permeates your everyday conversations?  Who do you talk about at the dinner table?  Whose life do you try to emulate?  Whose life do you follow, for example, in the news media (and I’m not talking about those tabloids that predict the end of the world)?  In short, how well have you followed the prescription of the Shema of Moses:

Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates.

– Deuteronomy 6:6-9

I love what David Crowder says at the end of his own meditation on this psalm: “One attribute of habitual praise is that it is inherent in creation.  We tell the glory of God by our very existence.  It is unavoidable.  We can choose whether to amplify this or not.  We can choose to be moved by this or not.  Maybe we just need a simple book beside our beds that reminds us of who the household name is.”





Word of God, Speak…

6 08 2009

BK01David Crowder’s book Praise Habit has been sitting on my bookshelf for about five years.  I’ve taken it down a few times, to read through the first chapter or two.  But somehow I could never bring myself to finish it.  (And at just 155 pages, there wasn’t even that much to finish!)

It is one of those books that cannot cannot be consumed in a day.  Or two, or even three.  In this small volume, Crowder introduces modern readers to the art of Lectio Divina (or, “spiritual reading”), and he gives us 21 psalms to practice with.  Using the Eugene Peterson’s Message translation, he follows each psalm with his own brief meditation on the meaning of the passage.  But, as I am learning, the real “magic” of the book happens off the page.

Crowder describes the practice of Lectio Divino as containing four steps: READ (“immerse yourself” in the Scripture), THINK (meditate on what God is saying), PRAY (converse with God about what he’s saying to you), and LIVE (let the Scripture change you).

I had heard of Lectio Divina before, but somehow that last step had never been emphasized before; I’m sure that the best Lectio-Diviners consider it to be a given, but it certainly changes things to have the “LIVE” step spelled out.

Because, as Crowder notes, “Jesus was the first one to become God’s word in the flesh: ‘The word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish. (John 1)’

There is a long tradition that associates the Word of God with life.  In Genesis, the word of God spoken across the surface of the deep becomes the impetus for creation, and thus, for life.

And Psalm 1:2-3 reads as follows (incidentally, Psalm 1 is also first in Crowder’s collection of Lectio Divina Psalms):

Instead you thrill to God‘s Word,
you chew on Scripture day and night.
You’re a tree replanted in Eden,
bearing fresh fruit every month,
Never dropping a leaf,
always in blossom.

A tree replanted in Eden.  That’s beautiful, isn’t it?  That phrase evokes the idea of rebirth and of God’s new creation.  Something about meditating on the word of God brings that new life.  It is a way of living into the kingdom  of God and living in the way we were originally created to be (as Crowder says, living into our “genesis-shape”)

In all of our prayer and devotional life, I think we should be looking for the last step of the Lectio Divina: Live.  For those who have Christ, the Word made flesh, living within us, shouldn’t we be praying that God would allow his Word (in Scripture, in creation, in other people, in meditation, and elsewhere) to continue to be made flesh inside of us, too?