Have you ever had an off day? Not necessarily a “worst day ever” sort of day just one of those – woke up on the wrong side of bed sort of starts? Maybe a day that you wake up, look in the mirror and think, “This is going to take longer than usual.” Somebody once said it this way. “Do you know how long people, on average, stand in front of the mirror getting ready in the morning?” Everyone was waiting for some sort of statistic that had been determined by some research study out of Duke University or something. He says, “Do you know how long people, on average, stand in front of the mirror getting ready in the morning?” “UNTIL IT GETS BETTER!” Well… Maybe you’re out of your favorite cereal and traffic was bad getting into work. Maybe you’re mind was distracted because of something your friend said the day before or you missed your work-out at the gym for the fifth day in a row. Maybe you got a bad paper cut and the dog got loose in the neighborhood again. Most of us have had the experience of an off day – again not the worst day ever kind of stuff – just a day that could only be described by the phrase: “I’m just not feeling it.” “I’m just not feeling it, today!”
We are creatures that long to be whole. We prefer things to bounce our way. We count on feelings more often than discipline to carry us through the day. What does it mean to praise God even when we’re not feeling it? Is it authentic praise? Can our souls still be fed? Can our understanding and sense of mercy grow deeper? What if we said, “Hallelujah!” anyway? In this season of gratitude – finding our way forward to Thanksgiving – we’re going to ponder that question together; journeying through what it means to be grateful, praising God, even when we’re not feeling it. And so we begin a three week trek; a sermon series we’re calling “Hallelujah Anyway.” Today, we consider our inclinations. Are you inclined to praise when things are maybe a little off or are you inclined to pass on the praise when your bingo numbers in life are never getting called and your card is looking pretty empty?
As human beings, we have leanings, inclinations, proclivities, predilections and preferences. I am working on the assumption, perhaps relatively safely, that God desires our leanings, inclinations, proclivities, predilections and preferences to be centered on the divine and the sacred… a life leaned into praise, no matter what life throws our way. In today’s Psalm reading, the Hebrew word for lean or leaning is translated ‘incline.’ It opens Psalm 78 and becomes a motif for the whole piece. God has been good but God’s people have replaced their sense of gratitude for God with a case of the grumpies. Lord, help me if I were to say that is never the case for me. Rather than inclining toward God, we often lean in any number of other ways. How are you so inclined?
Psalm 78 is one of the longest of all the Psalms. It is a wisdom psalm that is similar to what we experience in some other works of wisdom literature in scripture – Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, for example. “Give ear,” the Psalmist begins. “Lean in…to what I’m about to say.” This matters and it should have an impact on the way you’re going about your life. A follower of Jesus inclined to his ways is leaning into the words and example of Jesus Christ. Sometimes, however, we feel more like reclining Christians, don’t we?
I was in Chicago for a couple of days this week, representing our church on the Week of Compassion Advisory Committee. I roomed with the Rev. Dr. Bill Lee, a powerful orator, his voice a mix of James Earl Jones and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I loved listening to him speak. I soaked up his wisdom while I had the chance. Within the last few months he retired from Loudon Avenue Christian Church – a strong church in our denomination in Roanoke, Virginia where he served for 39 years, transforming the neighborhood around them. I met Bill the first time about a decade ago when we were the slated preachers for the Disciples National Men’s Gathering. I had seldom seen him since until this week. We shared hopes for the church and laughed about life and its obscurities. After the first eleven and a half hours of meetings, we were going out to dinner as a committee. Bill and I stood in a parking space in a busy area of Chicago as our colleague who was driving, circled the block in desperate search of a parking space. We held it down until our colleague could find her way to us. It was a bonding experience for sure. We woke early each morning and turned the news on which was sort of peripheral to our sense of waking up in our small, dorm-room-like twin beds. Both of us still laying in our beds in the wee hours of the morning, looking over our agendas for the day of meetings, a television commercial came on that was mostly nondescript. I didn’t even think about either of us paying much attention to its content but I noted enough that it spoke very casually about something we had spoken very seriously about the night before. When the commercial ended, I heard Bill’s first words of the morning… in that deep voice say… “We mean well sometimes…” It was a gracious answer to what he and I were both thinking. This commercial was promoting a reclining view… an unfair, poorly considered, arm-chair-quarterback-lazy-approach to the matter. And I thought about my own life when it comes to living the faith… especially when I’m honest about being in a reclining mode of faith. “I mean well sometimes…” but I’m not living out a life of gratitude that is responding to God’s goodness with an active, grateful faith.
The Psalmist was concerned with this lackadaisical approach to thanksgiving. God’s beloved had not held fast to their inclinations to be faithful, to lean into God. They were reclining in their faith and it was showing. The Psalmist says, “Is this the faith we are intent to pass along to the next generation?” We will say things like “Kids these days,” from time to time, as if who they have become has not been at least somewhat touched and shaped by our own inclinations and attitudes. A week ago, Sunday, we had a beautiful morning of worship here in this space – a combined worship service with nearly 400 gathered, placing names of the saints on our pillars as an act of gratitude and respect – just a marvelously inspiring morning. At that same time, a gunman opened fire on a little church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. You know the story… another tragedy. What is the problem? We point to mental health. We point to gun violence. We offer ‘thoughts and prayers’ which is ours to do. And yet… how can we be surprised? We live in a society that enables… that is inclined to such behavior. To say that we have no responsibility is to say we have no influence. It is to say our own words, our own actions, make no difference. And yet, together, we all are shaping the world in which we live. And the Psalmist pleas — “Don’t be a reclining generation… one who is without a steadfast heart, not faithful to God.” Frank Pomeroy, Pastor of First Baptist Church, in response to the day half of his congregation is murdered along with his own daughter, says, “Christ is the one who’s going to be lifted up. You lean into what you don’t understand. You lean into the Lord.” And what does that mean for us? We persevere. We don’t recline in our faith, we lean into the Lord. We make strong the love of the Lord. And we won’t all do that in the same way but we make good on what we believe most about God – that God is love and we are to embody it in the world, even when we don’t understand.
Love, and a spirit of gratitude for that love, is a discipline. You may not always feel it but that may be when you need to express it most. The Psalmist shares that God established a creed with Jacob that was to be taught to a generation of children so that their unborn children would rise and be taught as well to hope in God, live in gratitude, keep his commandments. And you’re thinking, “Easier said than done.” It’s like making yourself go to the gym on leg day or practicing your piano scales when you really just want to play classical masterpieces. Sometimes you have this picture of what you think life is supposed to be like but, in reality, you’re holding a handful of strange looking puzzle pieces that look nothing like the image on the front of the box. I heard someone speak to this once. He said, “What do you do when the picture doesn’t look like all the pieces you’re holding? When the pieces of your life don’t compare to the picture you have in your head? What do you do when the process doesn’t look like the promise?” Sometimes we get bitter about the little pieces – about our lives in pieces. When we bought that puzzle, we bought it for the completed picture on the front – not the headache of a bunch of jagged pieces that don’t seem to go together. Isn’t life like that? We’re dealing with challenging pieces of our lives and we think, “I didn’t pay for this.” “This wasn’t the plan.” But maybe it’s in pieces on purpose.
I had a friend who had come through some hard moments in the past. Reflecting back on those very difficult times he said, “I wanted to see it all at twenty years old. I wanted to see the full picture of my life.” “But,” he said, “If God would have revealed it all to me at that time, I would have run away.” Maybe it’s best that we get life in pieces; that we learn to be grateful with a piece even when it’s not complete. Not easy, but we’ve seen this before and we know for the big picture to come together, we’ve got to be faithful with the pieces. God calls to Abraham. Do you remember? “Abraham, come out of your tent and count the stars.” “Count the stars? You got to be kidding me,” he mumbles under his breath but he goes outside, “1, 2, 3, 4…” “Now,” God says, “As many are the stars in the sky, so shall your descendants be.” What? Abraham knows the issues he has. There is no way he’s going to have a family like that. He couldn’t know that one day, we’d be singing a song about him, “Father Abraham, has many sons… and many sons have father Abraham.” All he knows is that he and his wife can’t have kids. You show me one full and amazing picture, God, but then you give me a piece. You show me an image of grand family reunions but all I’m holding is this one little piece that says, “You are not the Father,” and biology says it ain’t happening for me and the Mrs.
Our own lives are like this. You get married picturing the 50th anniversary cruise you take with all of your children and grandchildren but you start marriage by getting to share one vanity in a small bathroom and assuming each other’s debt. Can you say hallelujah even then? You come out of school and you picture that corner office in the high rise but you land in a cubicle next to the boiler in the basement and somebody keeps stealing your stapler. Hallelujah? Or you become a parent… you have this grand picture of raising children. “I’m gonna raise a world changer!” Okay. Here; change a diaper. The list goes on. You have a picture of church… you have a picture of a civil society, of a peaceful world… and yet all we have are these pieces, these, at times, tragic fragments that look nothing like the big picture of God’s kingdom. And so what do we do? Sometimes, we give up on the picture because we can only see this little piece we’re holding right now. But if we stay after it, the pieces will start to take shape. If we throw our hands up too soon… if we quit singing the praises of God when we only have the pieces, I can’t imagine that the full picture will ever come into our view – in our generation or in the generations to come. And so we say hallelujah, anyway. And not in an “Oh well,” sort of way – but with faith and discipline and a determined grace… not a grace resigned for less than the stars of the sky.
We keep after it with the pieces we have today; stepping forward faithfully into the greater vision of Christ. I saw it last Sunday… even as I learned of the unfolding tragedy in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I saw you making good with the pieces of the picture you have in your hands. I saw it in worship – as our music leaders from two different services, two different styles, came together to sing and praise God united because a picture of unity is worth holding before us. I saw it in a group of twenty men – our Next Man Up ministry – who went out to maybe a dozen homes of people in our congregation who needed a little support to get some things done at their house. In part, the tasks were mostly just small pieces of a greater need still ahead but the image of these guys reverently shaking hands with some of our members they didn’t know, using the gifts they had to bring the whole picture a little more in focus was inspiring to me. I saw it when I picked up my son from the extended Children’s Christmas Play practice at church that afternoon as Ashley Pease, Cheryl Pease, and Jayne Whit were corralling the Electrons, a group of young boys who were trying to learn a Christmas rap version of Angels We Have Heard on High. I’m sure those three women thought, “Lord, help us!” wondering how this piece will somehow come together with the whole; somehow resembling and reflecting what it means that the Christmas Jesus, God incarnate, Word made flesh came to the world. Could it be? And then that night, I received a picture of some of our young families – some moms, some dads, a slew of kids – there they are serving a meal to our community neighbors who had no place to call home that night. Their gift didn’t end homelessness once and for all, but it was a step closer to a picture of God’s desire for us to be the human family. And those kids – generationaly learning what it means to be a piece of God’s puzzle – filling out once piece at a time, the picture of the kingdom of God.
In every one of those scenarios and perhaps many of your own, I’m guessing not everyone felt up to the task at the time. Not everyone was ready to shout, “Hallelujah!” going into the effort but thank God they showed up anyway. They persevered all that attempts to drag us away from praising God, from showing gratitude, from living the faith and sharing it with the next generation. How are you so inclined? I pray your inclination is to praise: “Hallelujah, anyway!” and “All thanks, glory and honor be to God, now – this day, this moment, and forevermore.”
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 https://www.facebook.com/elevationchurch.org/videos/1632992566721439/. The quote noted here as well as the next two paragraphs are influenced by this piece.