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Sing Praises to the Lord

December 13, 2006

Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord, O my soul. I will praise the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. (Psalm 146:1-2)

My soul praises the Lord….for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.

(Luke 1:46b, 48a)

Two pregnant women and a hug

It all happened very quickly. How moving it was to see these two pregnant women hugging each other. Two pregnant women hugging each other makes a funny picture. Still, this was a different hug – it was transcendental.

The younger woman was still in the early stages of her pregnancy. Elizabeth, the older one, was well advanced in her pregnancy. This may explain why she just stood there, hands over her pregnant womb, a big smile on her face and her eyes somewhat hypnotized by the dancing-jumping-jumping-dancing picture of the younger woman. She looked like she was quietly struggling to hold back her emotion. The moment was loaded with a joyful electricity. With the happiness of this encounter almost visible in the air, the facial language of both women spoke about experiencing a very deep sense of fulfilment.

Still unable to calm down, the young woman – Mary was her name – anxiously searched for a way to express herself. Suddenly, a wonderful poem began to flow from her lips. While Mary recited her poem, everything around her fell into a deep silence. Even the two boys in the women\'s wombs, who just a few moments before had also tried to dance, became quiet and felt the significance of this moment and beauty of this poem. Can we also listen as they listened?

My soul praises the Lord

And my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,

For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed…

The Magnificat, which emerged from Mary\'s lips because of the encounter between these two pregnant women, is one of the most beautiful and profound passages in the Bible. I think only a woman could have produced it. Only a feminine soul could capture the emotion and significance of the hour. Words, in this densely loaded and highly contagious context, had to be played out in poetry. Prose, discourses, cerebral statements were all too limited, dry and poor to express the melody and significance of the hour.

Since I am not a poet, I cannot evaluate Mary\'s poetry. Yet as a theologian I would say she impresses by the wealth and depth of what she says, and she is contagious because of how she says it. She has a deep sense of God\'s presence in history and of history\'s role in God\'s hands. She has a clear picture of what God is trying to do and how he is doing it. This is why joy and even surprise so overwhelmed her. God\'s inclusion of her in the process of fulfilling his promise – the promise of bringing a new time, a messianic promise – continues to astonish her.

Mary is a poet and theologian who speaks out of a profound experience of being captured by and being captive to God\'s calling. The content of her poem is simultaneously amazing, profound and scary. It turns the usual order of things upside down: the choice of Mary herself is just one example of this.

The proud are dispersed, rulers lose their thrones and the rich leave with empty hands. This does not usually happen; it’s a dream. The humble are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good things and Mary is miraculously pregnant. It all sounded impossible, and yet her pregnancy was very real. Just look at her! Mary, the pregnant theologian, knew that this pregnancy was a fact produced by God. It was God\'s way of writing his history – the history of salvation.

It is not in vain that E. Stanley Jones calls the Magnificat "the world\'s most revolutionary document". Throughout this book it will be a hermeneutical companion in our journey with and through Psalm 146. These two passages are so similar, have so much in common, that I could not resist the temptation to let them walk hand in hand – to our enrichment, surprise and even provocation.

Listen to the tune and thunder of the psalm

The 146th Psalm is beautiful. It is my favourite psalm. I hope that by the end of this journey we are converted by it and to it, heart and mind.

This psalm has a long history of influencing the people of God. For example, it was a source of inspiration to well-known hymn writers in the history of Christian hymnology. Paul Gerhardt\'s famous Du meine Seele singe, wohlauf und singe schoen ("Sing, thou my soul, arise and sing beautifully"), and Herrn-Schmidt\'s acclaimed Lobe den Herren, o meine Seele ("praise the Almighty, my soul"), are only two examples of this.

As for us, we want to join those forerunners in praising the Lord by borrowing the psalm\'s language and poetry to sing his praises as long as we live. Psalm 146, and many other psalms, is a continuous invitation to praise the Lord. As part of the fifth book of the Book of Psalms (Psalms 107-150), Psalm 146 is part of a small group of five psalms (146-150) called Hallel because they start and conclude with Halleluja, or "Praise the Lord."

The liturgical richness of the psalms is immense. Psalm 146 itself was, according to Weiser, incorporated into the practice of daily morning prayers within the tradition of later Judaism. The Christian church has long since discovered that the psalms are an enormous resource to inspire and guide the church in its worship life. In Latin America , for instance, it is interesting to see how much the psalms have inspired our hymnology during the past decades. We sing the psalms all over again in today\'s worship services.

Yet we need to do this with care. We must avoid the temptation to select only those portions of the psalms that fit easily into our particular tradition, or that are convenient to our own theological position, or that do not question our priorities and selective obedience. This is why we want to relate to all of Psalm 146, and we will do so step by step as we converse with the psalmist and with the Magnificat\'s author.

By summarising \'the message of the Psalms,\' John Goldingay suggests they underline four areas: praise, protest, telling what God has done, and proclaiming God\'s greatness. I suggest that we will be well served by applying these emphases to Psalm 146. There is a note of each in the psalm, as we will see. If we can relate praise to protest, our journey in discipleship is underway and we will keep good company with the psalmist.

Unfortunately, much of our evangelical tradition is unable to incorporate the biblical protest theme within our own collective or personal Christian experiences. Such a theological understanding and ecclesial praxis has often taught us that once you become a Christian there will be easy answers for all questions.

As a result, we cannot dive into the depths and conflicts of such a psalm as this. We sing evangelical choruses and hope everything falls into place. Because of this, we avoid involvement in complex issues such as the search for justice and the search to end the circle of oppression, issues raised by the psalmist.

With such a theology we are far from the psalmist and Mary’s Magnificat, impoverishing not only our liturgical life but our whole Christian experience as well. For in their words of praise to the Lord, readiness to serve, and a rereading of history in the light of God’s promises, the denunciation of evil and injustice and the proclamation of God’s victory over all forces of death go hand in hand. This is what Psalm 146 is all about. Are we willing and ready to make this our itinerary of faith?

Everything that has breath praise the Lord

The church in Latin America is young, lively, and visibly growing. If you had a little time to spend there, getting to know the life of its growing church, you would quickly conclude that praising the Lord is a very important element of the everyday life of the church. It would not be an exaggeration to speak of a praise renewal and a hymnological renewal occurring within many churches in Latin America .

This emphasis on praise has two components. One is cultural and forms a significant part of the so-called Pentecostal tradition. The Latin culture is a noisy culture, a street culture. People prefer to spend their time outside and not inside – when they have an “inside” – talking and not meditating, laughing or crying and not thinking, singing and not elaborating philosophical propositions. The Pentecostal tradition, more than any other Christian tradition, perceived this aspect of Latin culture and incorporated it into its liturgical experience.

Many who come from my tradition, that is, mainline Protestantism, may be a little disturbed if they go to a typical Pentecostal worship service. However, this may be a healthy experience. I would risk stating that most of the so-called historic Protestant churches are so directed by and tied to their past, with their roots “properly” established in the North, that they have lost the chance to develop a liturgical expression that establishes a healthy dialogue between a sound theological foundation and the cultural expression of the land where they worship God.

Another part of the recent worship tradition in Latin America goes by the name of the charismatic renewal. For the most part, this tradition finds its roots within the small Latin American middle class – reaching many professionals – and it builds upon the assumption that big is beautiful.

This tradition works toward gathering many people in worship meetings that are three to four hours long, where singing praises has a key, if not central, place. To stay on our feet for one to two hours singing the same choruses, clapping and raising our hands and practising a few steps of liturgical dance, is more than most of our traditions allow or invite us to do. Yet these churches experience the highest rate of growth, and not only in Latin America . I would dare to say that if the psalmist were in Latin America , he would try to practise a few dance steps in response to a contagious melody that puts Latin American rhythm to an old poem:

Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord, O my soul.

I will praise the Lord all my life

I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

Like Mary, the psalmist is a poet. Like Mary, he speaks with his heart and makes emotionally loaded statements that are difficult to measure on concrete levels. After all, what does it mean to commit oneself to “sing praises to my God as long as I live?” To try to measure the levels of continuity or discontinuity in the practice of praise, however, would mean to miss the point badly.

A poem reflects a moment, a commitment, and a posture. This is what the psalmist is trying to share with us. His experience of God’s presence, his commitment to God’s calling and his perception of God’s action are deep, overwhelming and contagious. He finds that the best way to deal with and express his experience and conviction is to start to sing, and like Mary he sings praises to the Lord. Like Mary he gives his poem a sound and solid theological base: he sings about God’s faithfulness to his promises, God’s decisive and preferential action in history and God’s final and undeniable victory:

The Lord reigns forever,

your God, O Zion , for all generations.

Praise the Lord.

What is there to sing about?

A serious temptation faced by the praise renewal movement in Latin America is that of becoming a superficial, alienating movement. The formal liturgical tradition faces the temptation of becoming mechanical and repetitive. The recent praise tradition, as expressed especially within the “communities movement,” faces the temptation of becoming theologically shallow and contextually alienating, despite its cultural connections.

I would suggest that we test our life of praise in the light of Mary’s Magnificat as well as in the light of the 146th Psalm. In both cases the poems are an expression of God’s action and a hymn to God’s faithfulness. As people of God, our praise to him “as long as we live” is not just a community feast but a proclamation and commitment as well. Let me explain what I mean.

1. To praise the Lord is a communal act that should help to create and build community.

Referring to the Psalms, John Goldingay says that “praising God in the Psalms is a corporate affair.” He continues: “Whether it is praise, protest, thanksgiving or proclamation, it happens together.”

We should integrate this tradition with our praising experience. I fear that much of our praising activity runs the risk of representing a search for a personal emotional experience that helps me “feel good.”

Many choruses and hymns that we sing repeatedly in our churches represent a spiritualised theology that is rich in heavenly language, eschatological expressions and easy promises of well-being.

These same hymns and choruses, however, are very poor in incarnational commitments, a sound reading of God’s action in history and a good understanding of God’s kingdom promises that we want to see fulfilled in the life of people and communities. As people of God we need to sing about what God has done in our lives and what he still wants to do in lives and through our lives. To praise the Lord is a community affair. It is a kingdom service.

2. To praise the Lord is an act pregnant with missiological content. It is a proclamation of God’s faithfulness and promises.

To repeat God’s faithfulness nourishes our lives, tells us that we are not alone, and announces to the world that he can be counted on. Proclaiming his promises says that history has a meaning, that life has worth and value, and that God is in control.

By announcing his promises we also make public God’s intention of salvation for all. He is a God of life who is willing to give life, as shown in and through Jesus Christ. To praise the Lord means to announce and live out the good news that the God of life is offering life to all who carry in and with themselves the signs of death, who live in an environment of death.

In this sense, to praise the Lord is the privilege of a special people, a people on a journey. Our journey is of the kingdom and while we go on the way we celebrate – as long as we live – God’s faithfulness to his people, and we invite everyone to become part of his people and his celebration. This message is worth celebrating in poetry. Mary and the psalmist have shown us the way.

3. Excessive praise might be the problem of some Christian communities. It is certainly not my problem.

It is not the problem of World Vision, the context in which these reflections were born. And I do not think it is the problem of most of those who are reading this book.

We are too pragmatic and conflictive for that. Our pragmatism makes us too results-oriented to have the time and even patience to get together with those who, without a guilt complex, spend time raising their hands to heaven in praise. By being too conflictive I mean that we have seen and been in touch with too much misery, suffering and injustice – that is why we cannot just raise our hands in “naïve” adoration.

How many of us have experienced the inability to sing praise with our well-dressed congregations on Sunday morning because the images of the week are still with us: a dying child, a broken family, a community without a drop of water, an entire Indian community decimated by military troops? We feel like crying, not singing.

Those among us who are unwilling to live out their faith disconnected from the death and suffering that surround us face the challenge of singing a song of hope in the midst of violence. This song is a song that announces God’s promises to the poor and the little ones. It is a song that denounces the evil one and those who are at his service. This is why we are invited to put a melody to the psalmist’s poem:

The Lord watches over the alien

and sustains the fatherless and the widow,

but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

We do not need to close our eyes while singing praises to the Lord. We can sing praises with our eyes open, willing to see and feel the pain of the world – and then our eyes will meet God’s eyes. We do not need to hide ourselves in well-protected buildings to praise the Lord. On the contrary, the world has to hear our praise to perceive that there is a God who wants to enter people’s lives and change their histories by marking them with peace, justice and joy – his marks.

We do not need to refine our praise beautifully and search for the best acoustic environment for our praise to be well received by God. He invites us to praise him while following the steps of Jesus in the dirty streets of the Galilee of yesterday and today.

This is why God invites us to praise him even in the midst of challenge and pain, yet also surrounded by his faithfulness and promises. Let us put melodies into God’s stories so that people may believe. Let us not forget that we are in good company. Mary is inviting us to sing with her:

My soul praises the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,

for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.

Reproduced with kind permission from MARC Publications,

121 East Huntington Drive, Monrovia, California 91016-3400 USA