January 28, 2024
Psalm 95, Mark 1:21-28
The psalm today, Psalm 95, is one of the best-known psalms in the Bible, and it does what in one way or another all the psalms do. It praises God and asks us to praise God. “Come, let us sing joyfully to the Lord,” the speaker says. “Let us joyfully sing psalms to him.”
And we don’t want to. We don’t want to praise God. We’re too wrapped up in ourselves, we’re too interested in our own lives. We’ve got things to do. And besides, what has God done for us lately? Our days are empty and gray. Violence and injustice are all around, as the psalmists knew, too. They weren’t naïve. What is there to praise?
Even if God does exist, why would he want us to praise him? How big is his ego?
Thomas Merton puts it this way in a little book called “Praying the Psalms.” “It is quite possible that our lack of interest in the Psalms conceals a secret lack of interest in God. For if we have no real interest in praising Him, it shows that we have never realized who he really is.”
These two sentences really bring me up short. They really hit home.
When we become aware of God, Merton says, of his holiness and love, of all that he has created and intends, “the only possible reaction” is thanks and praise.
A few weeks ago I was walking with my labradoodle in the woods. We were walking along Cronemiller Lake, and I saw a young man standing by a tree touching the moss on the branches with his fingertips. He was deaf and blind, and he seemed to be exploring the texture and feel of it. There were two women helping him, and when they guided him back to the road, I let them pass. I was thinking my own thoughts. But then I thought, no, no, and I stopped, and turned, and I called after them and asked if this young man, this boy really, might want to meet my dog.
And she tapped out my question on his arm, and he nodded and smiled, and Bumble came wriggling up to him. The women helped him bend, and when he reached out and touched Bumble’s curly fur with his fingertips, he laughed out loud, this beautiful, openhearted laugh.
It was a wonderful moment. It took me out of myself, it made me forget about my own life, and yet somehow I felt more like myself, too, bigger somehow. This is the paradox: that it’s in our own experience that we glimpse the divine. The people are “astonished” by the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel today, as the young man seemed to be astonished by the feel of Bumble’s fur. I think astonished is too strong a word for what I felt, but something like that–moved, maybe, by the man’s delight, by the women at his side, by the lake and trees, and moved to thanks and praise, just naturally. Spontaneously. I didn’t feel coerced. I felt free.
We all have moments like this, if only we stop, if only we remember, and this is the leap that we are all called to make, to choose to see these moments as moments of grace, as moments when God is reaching out to us, and to hold onto them in the dark and empty times, and to leap even then. “Do not grow stubborn,” Psalm 95 tells us. “Today, listen to the voice of the Lord.”
It’s what the first disciples do in the gospel last week when Jesus walks by and says, follow me. They get up and go. I don’t think Mark has left anything out. There must have been something about Jesus to draw the disciples, something powerful and good, but in the end they just had to decide. First comes obedience, then comes grace, not the other way around—or rather, first comes obedience, and then we become aware of the grace that has always been there.
Obedience. That’s a word we don’t like anymore. We’re skeptical about authority, and when it comes to human authority, we should be. We should never blindly follow any other human being. But with God it’s the only way. We have to. First comes faith, then comes proof, not the other way around—though proof isn’t the right word either. Intuitions. Glimpses.
Sister Ruth Burrows is straightforward and blunt: do you believe in Jesus or not? Because of course as Christians when we pray the psalms it’s Jesus we are praising. Forget all your theological scruples, Burrows says. Stop trying to make God into a God you can be comfortable with, a God who agrees with all your views. Leap. “Faith is a gift,” she says, but a gift that will be given “only if we choose to believe, choose to take God at his word and stake our lives on it.”
“Come, let us sing joyfully to the Lord,” Psalms 95 says. “Come, let us bow down and worship, / bending the knee before the Lord, our maker.” Lately I’ve been renewing the commitment I made as a deacon to pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day, the Church’s ancient book of psalms and prayers, and every morning begins with this psalm.
Sometimes I still struggle, as I always have, sometimes I resist, but I’m trying to change the direction I’m looking in, to focus on God and not myself, and I’m trying to use the language of the scriptures, not my own language—to use the words that Jesus used, because Jesus was a Jew, and the Jews prayed the psalms, morning, noon, and night. In the Gospels Jesus quotes the psalms more than any other part of the Bible. Whenever I hit a rough spot, whenever my mind gets in the way, I say, “leap of faith,” “leap of faith.” I remind myself that whenever we pray the psalms, Jesus is praying in us, or we are praying in him.
“O Lord,” the speaker says in Psalm 131, “my heart is not proud, / nor haughty my eyes. / I have not gone after things too great / nor marvels beyond me.” We are all deaf and blind. We all have to humble ourselves. “Truly I have set my soul / in silence and peace,” the psalmist says. He has set it, as in he has decided, as in he has made an act of will–and then, sometimes, “as a child has rest in its mother’s arms, / even so my soul.” When we trust, we can breathe. When we trust, we can be confident and unafraid.
We don’t love God because he forces us to. We love God because he loves us—loves us as a mother loves, tenderly and completely. We praise God because he is wonderful, and sometimes, for a moment, we glimpse that wonder, we sense that mystery.
Sometimes we stop, and we bend down, and we reach out our hand, and like a child we laugh, we laugh out loud, and our laughter rises up like a song.