River of Delights
I friend from Texas distributed to our peer group an article about the United States published in the Jerusalem Post. It was picked up by an American newspaper, and that is where I read it. It describes the decline of the United States. Once, it contends, we were the dominant world power, a force for peace, an engine of progress, a beacon of democracy. But now, not so much. We as a country have receded from policing the world. We are reeling from COVID, recession, and political division. Our democratic institutions are fragile, and our Christian religion is in serious decline.
His prescription? Pray. He offers the example of General George Patton and his call for prayer during World War II prior to battle. The skies cleared; the rains held; his army advanced; and the war was won. There, he wrote, we need to pray.
Now what caught my attention in this article is what he decided to emphasize versus what he decided to ignore. In presenting this dim picture of the state of the nation, he emphasized some things and deemphasized other things.
I see in this a parable about life, about my life, about your life, about our life. What we emphasize can inspire us to Sing for Joy or Shrink in Fear, to celebrate with gratitude or complain with regret.
I open the Bible this week and find the same options: read this or that, preach this or that, affirm this or denounce that. This decision, this tendency, this pull on the soul to go here or go there is what shapes our spiritual life, what shapes our human life, what shapes our common life.
Psalm 36 is a hymn with three verses. This fits the Baptist worship nicely. We are not known for singing all the verses. I grew up, and so did some of you, singing the first, second, and last stanza of many hymns! Admit it! Four verses of a hymn were just too much standing, too much singing, too much time taken from the preaching, right?
Here are three verses. Verse one is summarized: ‘O, those wicked people, those people over there. They are no good.” We are here in the sanctuary singing this hymn and offering this prayer, we are not like that. That is the implied message of verse one.
They have no fear of God at all.
In their blind conceit, they cannot see how wicked they really are.
Everything they say is crooked and deceitful.
They refuse to act wisely or do good.
They lie awake at night, hatching sinful plots.
Their actions are never good. They make no attempt to turn from evil.
We can describe these people, right? Wicked Russians invading Ukraine. Wicked dealers selling drugs on the street. Wicked scammers calling our parents and swindling my gullible mother out of her retirement. It is the way Democrats describe Republicans and vice versa!
There is much truth in this disposition, this description, this way of looking at the world. We are the righteous and they are the wicked. We are in church praying (p-r-a-y-i-n-g) and they are on the streets preying (p-r-e-y-i-n-g). It is the different between an a and an e, between one vowel and another. But it is to us like night and day.
There are many religions, many churches, many preachers, many people who elevate this verse of scripture to the place of prominence. “There are the good guys and there are the bad guys, and we know who is who.” Thank you, Jesus, for making us the good guys!!
Verse three of this worship song is not much better.
Pour out your unfailing over on those who love you.
Give justice to those with honest hearts.
Don’t let the proud trample me or the wicked push me around.
Look! Those who do e il have fallen!
They are thrown down, never to rise again.
Do you know anybody who carries this deck of cards? You think it is a normal deck with hearts and clubs and kings and queens. But no: every card is a V Card—a victim card. She is the victim of unfair rules; he is the victim of misunderstood motives; she is the victim of somebody’s meanness; he is the victim of random circumstance.
An executive who manages people described to me this week a workplace situation. The operation in question was dealing with resignations, changing regulations, shifting assignments, and of course unpredictable personalities. But here is the summary statement by that manager about a particular employee: “She always plays the victim.”
In other words, other people are doing things that make her look bad, perform poorly, and threaten resignation.
The disciples asked Jesus, following a local disaster. “Did this man sin or was it another person?” In other words: Who can we blame for this tragedy, this situation, this mess? It is the perineal tendency of the human soul: whom shall we blame?
You can embrace that as a life strategy if you wish. You can blame the kids or the grandkids. You can blame the police or the judges; you can blame your parents, especially if they are deceased!! There is much religion that rides down this road. Blame the devil. Blame the world. Blame the sinful nature. Blame the preacher. It is tempting to sing verse three of this song, isn’t it?
Thank God, there is verse two in the hymn. Thank God there are lyrics that lift us from judgment to gratitude. Thank God there is language that moves us from blame to blessing. Thank God there are phrases given to us to sing and say that shape our souls toward the worship of God and the love of each other.
Your unfailing love, O Lord, is as vast as the heavens.
Your faithfulness reaches beyond the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains.
Your justice is like the ocean depths.
You care for people and animals alike, O Lord.
How precious is your unfailing love, O God!
All humanity finds shelter in the shadow of your wings.
You feed them from the abundance of your own house,
letting them drink from your river of delights.
For you are the fountain of life, the light by which we see.
What jumps out at you and seizes your imagination? What phrase here in this psalm captures your fancy? What piece of his song settles in your memory and gives you pleasure?
Last week, a professor in Texas announced on Facebook that his book had been published. Its title leaped right off the screen and seized me with delight. Tending to the Fire that Burns at the Center of the World. Something about that phrase gathered up all the mystery of the universe and packaged it just for me.
Dr. David White must have had the same experience when he read it in a book by the late theologian Urs von Balthasar. It must be similar to what Sergei Rachmaninoff felt when he heard the music of Paganini.
When I read these lines this week I grabbed hold of this phrase, “river of delights.” This describes the abundance of God’s grace and forgiveness, the flood of love—hesid, in the Hebrew—that surrounds us, the renewal of creation all around us. The one who loves us is everywhere, surrounding us with love and mercy and every provision. “I look below, I look above, I’m surrounded by your boundless love.” So wrote and sang the late, great John Prine.
He could have cursed the evil in the world or blamed the COVID for cutting short his life. But he sang of the bounty of beauty and the dance of delight that runs like a river all around us.
The old creed had it partially right when it begins with the words, “The chief end of human life is to give glory to God and enjoy the Lord forever.”
I know our country has problems. But around us stand universities and grade schools overflowing this week with teachers and students, scholars and servants, all eager to learn and discover and create; above us are skies that are clear and clean and blue and open to the universe in all directions; beneath us is a ribbon of highways that give you the freedom to travel wherever you want to go, see whatever you want to see, take a thousand pictures of everything you see; within us is commitment to justice, freedom, opportunity, and equality. I say hallelujah and praise the Lord.
This psalm entices us to emphasize what feeds our soul and frees our minds to be the people God wants us to be.
You have the choice today: in your job to fixate on the negative or find the positive; in your marriage, to celebrate the love and commitment and forget about the socks and the weeds; in your church, to overlook our many deficiencies and thank God for our intent to, as the web site says, make waves of wonder and worship; in your own heart, to accept the things you cannot change and give thanks to God for the promise that God is at work in your life to make you strong and sweet, kind and courageous, discerning of truth and delighting in the showers of blessing that fall upon you