Sunday, October 2, 2011

Laudate Dominum - Celebrating the Life of St. Francis

Ellen Davis, who teaches Old Testament at Duke Divinity School, has written that: "…the main reason to preach Psalms is not the bare fact that they contain great lines or great metaphors. Rather, it is because the poets who composed them thought differently about God, and more deeply."

In Psalm 148, the poet uses the Hebrew phrase hallelu-yah no less than twelve times. In fact, the last five psalms of Israel’s songbook—psalms 146-150—all make abundant use of that word. They are like that section in the Hymnal where the Easter hymns are located, and after the forty-days of Lent (when we hold all those alleluias in) we can contain ourselves no longer, bursting forth in a chorus of alleluias on Easter morning. 

Walter Brueggemann says that this summons to praise in Psalm 148 imagines all of creation as a worshiping congregation: sun and moon and stars and sea-monsters and fire and hail and tempestuous wind and all cattle and creeping things are all there, all part of one big Hallelujah Chorus, praising the God from whom all blessings flow!

Praise can never be coerced or forced or manipulated. You can’t guilt someone into praise. You can guilt them into going to church or into doing the right thing; but praise comes from the heart. Praise flows from the deepest place in our souls, that good and holy part of us that is created in God’s own image and knows that life is a gift. This great ecological hymn of praise tries to capture that.

Not every day of our lives feels like that, of course. The journey of faith includes some days when we must walk through the valley of the shadow of death. If our hearts are heavy and we are carrying heavy burdens, a few alleluias don’t necessarily make all of that better. But what they can do is point us toward the dawn of a new day. They can instill hope by reminding us that we will make our song again.

Grief and pain are real, there is no doubt about that. But I sometimes wonder how many days we miss an opportunity for praise for other reasons, less legitimate reasons. Perhaps because we are just too anxious about earthly things or too worried about tomorrow, which we can’t control anyway. Perhaps because we’re traveling so fast that we miss what is right before our very eyes. Perhaps because we are sweating the small stuff and forgetting the main thing.

Jesus, like the poets who wrote the psalms, thought about God differently and more deeply—and he invited his followers to do the same. In the spirit of Israel’s poets, he invited us to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air who do not toil. They simply praise their Maker in their own native tongues: Laudate dominium, as we might sing in Latin.  Hallelujah, in Hebrew! Praise God, in English!

This is the psalm St. Francis chose as the basis for his own canticle of praise: All creatures of our God and king…lift up your voices, let us sing: Alleluia! Alleluia! Francis was born one of seven children to Pietro and Pico di Bernardone. At his Baptism he was given the name Giovanni—John—after Giovanni the Baptist. But his father, a successful businessman, nicknamed him “Francesco” after his beloved France, where he did a fair amount of business travel. While they were a religious family (especially Francesco’s mother) the expectation was still clear: Pietro hoped that one day this son would join him in the family business. He most definitely did not encourage his son to become a monk! So imagine the old man’s dismay when Francesco broke it to him that he believed God had other plans for him. Everything we know about that relationship between father and son reminds us that before he was a statue in our gardens, he was a real flesh and blood person, with all of the challenges and joys and heartache that are part of the deal of being human and of being part of a family.

Francis was also a veteran who had seen combat. He struggled and faced hardship and the realities of life not so different from our world. Eventually, though, Francesco decided to give up all of his worldly possessions in order to gain Christ. There on the town green in Assisi he took his clothes off and began again, naked as the day he came into this world—without even the shirt on his back to call his own. He found, I think, that all that stuff was getting in the way of him living life in a posture of praise to God.

When you orient your life to God in praise, even death can become a gentle friend.  All creatures of our God and king become part of one big family as brother sun and sister moon join in the Hallelujah Chorus with us. And when that happens, by God’s grace what we really do discover is that hoarding our stuff not only doesn’t lead to eternal life, it doesn’t even lead to life here on earth. When we live our lives in praise we really do discover that it is in giving that we receive.

We all know that there are times in our lives when praise is really hard, and none of us escape this life without days like that. But even then, and maybe especially on those hard days, it does us a world of good to go out and take our cues from God’s amazing creation. When God appears to Job out of the whirlwind and Job says, “why me, Lord?,” God doesn’t explain to Job why innocent people suffer in this world. Rather, he says something like this:  

Go take a hike, Job. I mean it, literally! Go see the Grand Canyon. Look up at the stars on a clear night. Get thee to a high mountain. Go on a whale watch so you can observe Leviathan, that I made just for the sport of it. Check it out, Job—it’s a big amazing and wonderful world. Not perfect, I know; I’m still working out some of the kinks! But it’s still good and beautiful and amazing and I hope you can see that all creatures are tilted toward praise, bent toward the Creator of the heavens and earth. And perhaps if you really do listen to the songs of the birds of the air and consider the flowers of the field, you too, will once again find your bearings. That’s the best I can do Job—just keep singing: Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

The main reason to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the psalms is not the bare fact that they contain great lines or great metaphors: it is because the poets who composed them thought differently about God, and more deeply. That’s what Francis did and because of that we call him a saint. He wasn’t perfect; none of the saints are. But he saw God differently, and more deeply, and lived his life tilted toward praise and gratitude. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

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