Psalm 136

On the way home from DFW on Friday night I listened to the latest episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Reconstructionist History”. The episode is titled “The King of Tears” and it is about why some music is so emotional and actually brings tears to our eyes and other music is just music with lyrics. But, as Gladwell does so well, he takes a comparison of country western lyrics with rock and roll and comes up with a bigger theory about why there is a split in the country between the elites who don’t understand the lives and values of country western people and the rest of the nation. It’s worth downloading.

He interviews the songwriter Bobby Braddock who wrote so many sad songs – mainly because he has had a sad life but one of the songs he features in the one that gave a new career to George Jones – “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. I’ll agree with him. It can make you emotional because it tells a real story about the relationship with a tune that you keep hearing in your head. Of course, the best of country western is that way, isn’t it? The tunes are easy to remember and the words are as well. Even though most of us think the top lyrics are beer, drunk, women, bars, trucks, shame, cheating and country pride there is more to it than that. The repetition of the lyrics lets you know that there is something real and somehow reflecting a life that people understand – whether it is theirs or not. The songs tell a story that slips under the radar somehow. The songs are specific about things that people recognize as real in their lives or the lives of someone they know. They are songs of loss, change, love, friendship, unfaithfulness and belonging.

I’ve also been thinking about music that has more than a simple refrain after every verse. As you know, I have a small beef with some of the contemporary worship songs we sing – or watch others sing because we can’t. I had to laugh when I read this in the Wittenburg Door – a Christian satire magazine – a long time ago. It is a note in the bulletin of a contemporary church written to people visiting who are used to traditional music in church.

“Thank you for choosing to worship with us today. If you are from a church that uses traditional hymns, you may be confused. Please take a moment to read through this guide to contemporary Christian music. In our church you will not hear “How Great Thou Art,” “Wonderful Grace of Jesus,” or “Like a River Glorious.” (Generally, hymns that have words like “Thou” are not used. They are too archaic and are normally replaced by words like “awesome” and “miry clay”). Yes, okay, we may do “Amazing Grace” or “Peace Like a River” at some point, but as a general rule we avoid songs with too many different verses or those that can’t be played easily on guitar and drums.

If you are new to worship here, you may wish to know the reasons for this. One is that deep theological concepts do not belong in contemporary Christian worship. We frown on songs that change more than one or two words for each verse. For example, our version of “Holy is the Lord” consists of repeating that phrase six times per verse and then changing “Holy” to “Worthy,” “Mighty,” “Jesus” and finally changing “the” to “my.” Isn’t that much simpler to sing and easier to remember? The twin goals here are a) repetition and b) chanting quality. We don’t focus on what we’re singing, but how we’re singing it. The main thing is to get that kind of tingly, “olive oily” feeling. Don’t worry if you don’t get this right away. It will come as you learn to disengage your intellect. Just free yourself. Immerse yourself. Relax.

Nevertheless, a traditional hymn may sometimes be used. For example, we’re not averse to “Holy, Holy, Holy.” You may be tempted to sing this as you would have in your former church, but please note that it is sung here with changes, mainly the fact that we repeat it several times and try to sing as slowly as possible, thereby emphasizing the funereal nature of the verse.

Repetition is very important in contemporary Christian music. We repeat: Repetition is very important in contemporary Christian music. Just because a song may have one verse and one chorus does not mean that you only sing it through once. Old hymns have several verses, each of which introduces a new theological concept, and are meant to be sung once followed by “Amen.” This is no longer how it’s done. The correct procedure is to sing the identical verse and chorus at least three times. Often it is preferable to repeat the verse two times initially before moving on to the chorus.”

There are good reasons to laugh along with that but I don’t want to throw out what is good about repetition. I was with a CEO of a company last week in California and he was talking about one of the keys of good communication. Yes, it was repetition. He said he had learned he had to keep repeating the fundamentals over and over again even though he was sick of hearing it himself and assumed everyone else was as well. It turns out that people don’t hear it the first time or the fifth time or even the 20th time. They need to keep hearing it over and over again until they finally get it. Repetition when used right and not just to dumb things down is important and necessary.

But there is something else going on in the value of repetition and that is what we call rote memorization. We don’t value it much today but it is still the main way of learning in Asian and other cultures. While it may not teach critical thinking it has a way of shaping our minds in ways that critical thinking and diversity simply cannot. There is a place not only for rote learning but for rote prayers like The Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s Creed or even the Doxology. They don’t change – and that’s a good thing. When we can’t find the right words to communicate our feelings, rote prayers rescue us, and assist us in opening our hearts to the Lord.

We can also call them pre-made prayers. While they can sometimes lead to staleness and simply mouthing the words without any understanding – and we all love the stories of little children who are confused by some of our great prayers.

• From San Francisco: When I was a child, I learned this prayer as “Our Father, who are in Heaven, Howard be thy name.” I always thought that was God’s real name.
• Missoula, Mont: My son, who is in nursery school, said, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, how didja know my name?
• Tampa, Fla: When my husband was 6 years old, he thought a certain prayer was “He suffered under a bunch of violets..” The real words were “under Pontius Pilate,” but at that age, he didn’t know better. To this day, we still snicker in church whenever that prayer is read.
• Oak Harbor, Wash: When my older brother was very young, he always walked up to the church altar with my mother when she took communion. On one occasion, he tugged at her arm and asked, “What does the priest say when he gives you the bread?” Mom whispered something in his ear. Imagine his shock many years later when he learned that the priest doesn’t say, “Be quiet until you get to your seat.”

There is something about pre-made prayers that has real value.

That brings us to perhaps the most important point when considering pre-made prayers.

“In 21st century America, we as a culture and, I would dare venture, as a church, have lost our sense of community. American culture is fiercely individualistic, and the American church has, in many aspects, adopted that ideology.

While this isn’t all bad, it takes away from the unity Christ meant us to have with all believers, across the globe and throughout history. Praying a prayer that is well-established in the Christian faith, such as a prayer from the Puritan prayer book, Valley of Vision, an affirmation of belief from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, or a Psalm from the Bible allows us to take part in the one-ness that Jesus speaks about in John 17: “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us . . . that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity” (John 17:21-23).

For some people, this may most often take the form of personal, original prayers, but for others, praying the tried and true words originally penned by others may serve better. The two are not mutually exclusive, but each have their time and place.

God calls us to individual relationship and individual prayer; He also calls us to relationship with the entire body of Christ and to corporate prayer, and sometimes the richest prayer time can begin with the realization that another child of God has walked the same path you are walking and felt the same sorrow, pain, joy, and hope you are experiencing.”

Some have asked the question about Psalm 136. Why does the Psalmist repeat that one phrase 25 times in the course of the psalm? Isn’t once or twice enough? Isn’t he putting us in danger of actually becoming numb to the phrase as we repeat it over and over again in our minds.

On John Piper’s website there is an article by Nick Roen who addresses this very psalm and the question of why we repeat this phrase “His love endures forever” so many times and it makes sense to me.

”The main reason we need to rehearse the love of God again and again is because we don’t believe it; at least, not naturally. We aren’t naturally prone to believe that God — the God who has always existed in eternal Trinitarian fullness, who created the universe out of nothing, who governs the affairs of Kings, who controls the path of every speck of dust and particle of water — that God delights in his people with gladness and rejoices over them with songs of joy (Zephaniah 3:17). It doesn’t naturally make sense that this big, sovereign, infinite God would love us, that he would love the world so much that he would send his only Son to die for his people’s eternal joy (John 3:16).

So we need to repeat it. We need to remind ourselves, to remind each other, to sing it to one another, over and over, until we just begin to grasp again God’s steadfast, eternal, death-conquering love.

We often bristle at repetition in our corporate worship. We think it breeds superficiality, or creates a false emotional frenzy, or is just plain boring. We have to remember, though, that our hearts are slow to feel. We need to remember that, even in our believing, we suffer from unbelief (Mark 9:24). We need to remember to remember. Dwelling on a simple and weighty truth for an extended period.”

Well, there is not only repetition and rote. There is also something we call responsive. This psalm was meant to be done as a responsive reading and not just as individuals or by the praise team. The psalm was meant to be read together by the congregation.

The structure is easy.

Verse 1 reminds us that the Lord is good – and the word means beautiful. That’s where we start with God and for that we are thankful. His kindness springs from his goodness.

Verses 2-4 remind us that it is the Lord alone who does great things and the only goodness that matters is his.

Verses 5-9 remind us that all of creation is a result of his understanding and wisdom. It is not random. It was put together with skill and intention. His kindness will outlast his creation.

Verses 10-25 remind us that the Lord of Creation is also the Savior of Israel. The universal becomes the particular and it is all related to each other.

Verse 26 takes us back to the beginning – as many of the last verses of the psalms do. “Give thanks to the God of heaven.”

So, I want us to do something different this morning. I want us to read responsively as it was intended by the author. And as we read it would be good for us to pause and reflect on what each of these sections mean in our lives but not just ours. Think about what these words mean in the lives of our families, our church, our community and country.

Here we go. I will read the verse and you will read the refrain. Do we need to practice? Any Methodists or Episcopalians here who can coach us?

Psalm 136

1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His love endures forever.

2 Give thanks to the God of gods.
His love endures forever.

3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords:
His love endures forever.

4 to him who alone does great wonders,
His love endures forever.

5 who by his understanding made the heavens,
His love endures forever.

6 who spread out the earth upon the waters,
His love endures forever.

7 who made the great lights—
His love endures forever.

8 the sun to govern the day,
His love endures forever.

9 the moon and stars to govern the night;
His love endures forever.

10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt
His love endures forever.

11 and brought Israel out from among them
His love endures forever.

12 with a mighty hand and outstretched arm;
His love endures forever.

13 to him who divided the Red Sea asunder
His love endures forever.

14 and brought Israel through the midst of it,
His love endures forever.

15 but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea;
His love endures forever.

16 to him who led his people through the wilderness;
His love endures forever.

17 to him who struck down great kings,
His love endures forever.

18 and killed mighty kings—
His love endures forever.

19 Sihon king of the Amorites
His love endures forever.

20 and Og king of Bashan—
His love endures forever.

21 and gave their land as an inheritance,
His love endures forever.

22 an inheritance to his servant Israel.
His love endures forever.

23 He remembered us in our low estate
His love endures forever.

24 and freed us from our enemies.
His love endures forever.

25 He gives food to every creature.
His love endures forever.

26 Give thanks to the God of heaven.
His love endures forever.

Yes, no matter what. His love endures forever.

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