by David Baer, June 11, 2017
Text: Psalm 100:1-5
What if your emotions were a bunch of characters in your head working together, and sometimes against each other, sharing or seizing control of your mind? In the Pixar animated film Inside Out, that’s what we see when we peek inside the head of the main character, Reilly, a girl whose family moves from Minnesota to a new home in San Francisco.1 During the course of the story, Reilly struggles with grief over losing her old friends and home, and we see the turmoil of her inner life as her core emotions try to make things right and stable again. There’s a lot to think about here, but what was striking to me was the flashback scene that shows the moment Reilly was born. In this newborn child, taking her first breath, with her senses taking in her first perceptions of the world, the first emotion to take form is… Joy.
What is joy? What images come to mind when you hear the word “joy”? Do you see a laughing face? Or a smile?… Not the kind of smile you force when posing for photographs, but the easy, natural smile that comes to your face when you re-connect with an old friend. Running, dancing, all kinds of movement can suppress our self-consciousness and give us delight in our bodies. Some small children wake up crying in the morning, but some of the children in my life have been known to awaken with shrieks of delight. As my grandmother used to say as she flung open the curtains in the morning, “It’s a beautiful day for living!” Waking from sleep, taking in the new day, our first sensations come as unexpected gifts. So why shouldn’t a newborn child greet her first day on earth with joy?
For the next five weeks of the summer, we’ll be exploring the psalms. These are powerful songs, musical poetry connecting our human life to God. Maybe some of you have favorite psalms that you reach to for comfort or inspiration. But the psalms are not all the same. The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann talks about three kinds of psalms: psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of new orientation.2
Sometimes life is good, and the old, established patterns of living are working well. Your job is secure, your family is healthy, and you’re feeling confident about the future. This is a posture of orientation, and there are psalms that speak to this experience, psalms that celebrate the goodness of God as the creator of a world that brings such rich blessings.
But sometimes you feel as though you’ve been knocked down, or at least off balance. You lose your job. You suffer an illness or a loss. A relationship that seemed secure breaks down. The old maps you had followed up until now don’t seem to be working. We’ve all had experiences of disorientation, and the distress and uncertainty they bring. The psalms that speak to this part of human life are called psalms of disorientation, and they are laments, cries of anger, and pleas for help.
After a crisis has passed, and you find yourself once more on steady ground, you are nonetheless not the same person as you were before. You have a different understanding of yourself and God. You are moving through life with a new map built on the wisdom gained from your disorientation and distress. You are now living in a new orientation. Psalms that express this kind of human experience are psalms of thanksgiving and praise that celebrate God as one who hears, rescues, protects, and saves.
But Brueggemann says that this movement from orientation through disorientation and into a new orientation is not just a straight line we go through once. Life doesn’t stop, and so it’s a circle. One crisis has passed, and we become more settled, we accept our new orientation as something given and stable, until a new crisis knocks us off balance.
I know this is a lot of information, but I want to get it out there for you as a way of inviting you to bring your own experience into reading or hearing or singing the psalms. The particular season you happen to be living in right now might be a time of orientation, disorientation, or new orientation. I just want to give you some language that will help you think about whether these scriptural songs are describing your present, recalling your past, or anticipating your future.
Today’s psalm is about joy. Joy is most often an immediate experience, delight and satisfaction in the present moment, untainted by regret about what has passed or apprehension about what is coming. But sometimes joy does call to us from the future. The author of the book of Hebrews points to Jesus as the one “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (12:2). Joy can be something we pursue, something that pulls us through hardships and suffering.
But the psalm we heard today is about joy in the present. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord,” it begins! The psalm is structured as a series of commands: “Make a joyful noise,” “worship,” “come,” “know,” “enter,” “give thanks,” “bless.” These words call forth a response from those who hear, namely joyful worship with God’s people from all the earth. The reason for this invitation is God’s relationship with us, God’s people. We did not make ourselves—God did. We belong to God, and God cares for us like a shepherd for his sheep. What’s more, God loves steadfastly, and is endlessly faithful. Because of who God is, and the way God’s essential being is expressed in relationship with us, God deserves our joyful praise.
What kind of psalm is this? Walter Brueggemann calls it a psalm of new orientation—in other words, a song from someone who has experienced God’s goodness and faithfulness in a time of distress. But if there is hardship in the past, it is so far in the rear-view mirror that it has just about disappeared from view. I see this as a psalm of orientation. The words written over the psalm in the manuscripts call it a song “for giving thanks.” It doesn’t recall any specific act of God, just God as the Creator who is good and reliable. Jesus bears witness to this kind of experience of God when he says to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and God’s care for them, as a way of drawing attention to the care and concern our Creator has for us.
That’s not the only way we experience God, but it is one way. I’ve heard some of you express thanksgiving in these terms: “God has always been there,” or “When I look back at my life, I see God shaping my whole journey.” And what the psalm tells us is not to take these as givens, not to take them for granted, but to let them drive us to joy. The split in the psalm between descriptive language about God and prescriptive language directed toward God’s people makes me think of breathing. In those seasons of our life when things are basically good and stable, we breathe in blessing—health, good relationships, peace and fulfillment. And then we pause, recognizing where they come from, and we breathe out blessing—worshiping joyfully and giving thanks.
The Westminster Catechism, one of the historic teaching tools used in the Presbyterian Church, begins with the question, “What is the chief end of man?” And the answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Glorify God—breathe out. Enjoy God–breathe in. Give thanks to God—breathe out. Receive God’s blessings–breathe in. What the catechism means to teach us is that this is form of spiritual breathing is what we were made for, it’s the intended rhythm of our life. It’s like a two-stroke engine for our souls, taking in the fuel of God’s goodness and harnessing its energy to love God and our neighbor. Now, as we’ll see over the coming weeks, life gets a little more complicated than this. We experience brokenness in ourselves, in our relationships, and in the world we live in, and this disrupts and disorients what was meant to be our natural rhythm of receiving grace and giving thanks. But it’s not wrong to see this as the normative pattern for human living—breathe in God’s mercy, God’s blessings, God’s gifts; breathe out praise, thanksgiving, and service. And the energy that sustains it all is joy—the Creator’s joy in giving life to our world and its creatures, and our joy in receiving God’s gifts and giving praise.
I said before that not all of us are going to connect with every psalm as a description of what we’re experiencing right now, and that’s OK. You may be feeling out of control or off balance this morning, and joy may not be immediately accessible to you. I want to suggest a couple of things, if that’s where you are. The first comes from realizing that no crisis is total, no disruption ever takes complete control. There are always gifts worth giving thanks for, even on our hardest days.
But I also think it’s telling that this is a song that envisions all peoples worshiping together, a whole crowd joining in praise. To gather together with friends, to be upheld in prayer, to participate in a weekly commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection that shows God’s power over everything that tries to thwart abundant, joyful life—as a community we know God’s goodness, God’s faithfulness over the long course of our story as a people. Together we bear witness that God is good, that God’s steadfast love endures forever, that God’s faithfulness extends to all generations. Our joyful noise may be blended with notes of sorrow or grief or anger, but what emerges from this crowd of hurting but hopeful people is a joyful noise nonetheless.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Amen.
Inside Out. Dir. Pete Docter. Walt Disney Studios, 2015. Film.
Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984.