At the end of 2020, and maybe the start of this year, unexpected had its moment on the internet: sea shanties. I know, who would have expected it?
In the strange and magical world that is TikToc, this guy uses his musical gifts to post an old sea shanty. Shanties are rhythmic work songs, structures to keep you moving at a pace. They became songs for rowing together, keeping a steady and consistent movement as the ship crosses the waters.
Let me tell you why I enjoy watching things on TikToc–it’s a collaborative space on the internet. So this guy posted him singing a shanty, and then someone added the base line. Shanties, it turns out are a community activity, written and sung to keep you and those with you rowing.
Our songs are important–you know this, because some of you have very clear when you don’t like a hymn or we have song too many of them. Our hymnal, hymnals, tells us about we are trying to teach about God, our favorite hymns tells us what we think about God. The book of Psalms, has been described as the hymnal, a song book of the Jewish people. And while it might not be a perfect description, there are things we can learn about the Psalms if we think about it as a hymnal:
These were not meant to be prayers and songs of individual devotion–although they could be–they were written to be sung together, prayed together, as a choir, as part of worship, or, like the songs of ascent, sung as they traveled together, road trip music, on the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem. Like sea shanties, Psalms are meant to keep you going.
There are psalms of praise, of lament or grieving, of thanksgiving, of royalty or kingship, of Torah or teaching. Some suggest that there is a trajectory in the Books of Psalms, pointing the reader, the singer, to the Torah and the hope of renewed kingdom, which is a lot more than we have time to get into, but I say that because I think sometimes we don’t give people of the ancient world credit for their sophistication. They believed pillars held of the skies, how could they be sophisticated? But they curated this book, like one might curate art, they collected, organized, created an arc of these or this book, depending on how you look at it, the Torah and it’s stories of origins, the books of history and kingdom, and the Books of Psalms from vast stories, regions, oral traditions, and experiences. There is a reason and a purpose for the selection and the order they are placed. The Book of Psalms we have today has been divided into 5 books of Psalms and the first 3 books were found in the caves around the Dead Sea in the same order we have them today, so they have been in this order for more than 2000 years.
So, if the order matters, beginnings matter. The United Methodist Hymn, the first hymn, was one of the earliest hymns written by Charles Wesley, and has been the first hymn in every Methodist hymnal and song book since the 1700s. (Don) The original version is 18 verses long.
Psalm 1 is thought to have been a prelude to the Psalms–setting up all that would follow. Beginnings matter.
Psalm 1 is a Torah psalm, which we can connect back to the law Paul keep talking about in Galatians, it can also mean teachings. The Torah isn’t just the rules of a community but it starts are creation–who God is in the world, who the people are to God, and how they are to relate to God’s good creation. But also, there is teaching in these books of Psalms. There is learning to be done and there are ways to grow.
The psalm is telling it’s readers, singers, us, what it is to live a happy life–“Happiness comes to those”. It’s also translated as “Blessed are those who…” which might sound familiar from Jesus’ teaching we call the Beatitudes–teaching for a beautiful life.
The Psalmist seems to create this very right and wrong view of the world–you don’t do this, you do this. The Common English Bible says: “The truly happy person doesn’t follow wicked advice, doesn’t stand on the road of sinners, and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.” It starts with the people, curating the people we spend our time with. Who do you talk with when you are in transition, when you are moving, when you are passing through? Who do you stop and stand with, turn your focus to? Who do you settle in and get comfortable with? Follow, stand, sit.
The people we spend our time with influences what we do, how we think, the way we talk or tell stories. There was a time when I found myself regularly saying, “seriously?” which I clearly picked up from my friends, and they had picked it up from the TV show Grey’s Anatomy. But sometimes it’s more serious, like that one person who is always complaining or belittling and judging others. Jim Rohr wrote that “you become the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.” It’s fun to sit with Statler and Waldorf in the balcony making snide comments but it doesn’t lead to a happy life. The Psalmist knows we are not going to be able to do this life alone, so curate your community with people who love you as are and still challenge you to grow and lift up your community.
Curate what you put into your mind. The Psalmist says to delight in the Torah and to meditate on it. It’s not just the laws we find in the texts, it is the teachings. I think we can extend the teachings to the words of the prophets, the teachings of Jesus, even the lessons from Paul, and the voice of the still speaking God in the words, in the songs, in the world around us. When I was in high school, there was a statewide Methodist youth gathering. We’d bring in musicians and speakers, and I remember one speaker asking these high schoolers and their adults, to lower our hands if we had less than 5 scripture memorized, then 10, then 15, and so forth. Then he proceeded to shame us for not having scripture memorized. Here’s the thing: I still don’t really have scriptures memorized, but when I’m struggling, I do have songs. I sing choruses from Rich Mullin’s songs from… 30 years ago, asking Jesus to hold me because I’m shaking like a leaf and that I believe what I believe makes me what I am.
I also fill my head with true crime, which makes me a little paranoid about the world around me.
And I don’t think what we curate to fill our lives needs to be “Christian,” there is so much sacred and holy, and Christ is already there, in what is termed secular. There is sacredness in music and truth stories and poetry. There is holiness in generosity. We study the scriptures because tell stories of people’s experience with the Divine. And they tell our stories, too. They are filled with Truth, even as it didn’t happen exactly like it says. We meditate on it because it makes us who we are, because Truths we learn there will come back to us in our time of need or joy or sorrow or celebration, giving us courage and hope and peace.
So curate what you bring into your mind because it will feed your soul and will nourish you on your journey.
It will be the spring, the living water that nourishes your soul, supports your growth, produces the fruit Paul wrote to the Galatians about: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control.
Will everything prosper? I guess it depends on our ideas of prosper, or success. But we are promised abundant and whole living, abundant in the fullness of who Christ is, in the abundance of who we are made to be, in the abundance of grace and love, rooted in God, nourished in Christ, surrounded by Community. And so we live as those who have hope and who trust and who seek justice and mercy and love for all of God’s creation. And when you don’t have hope and have only doubts and you’re not sure justice can be found, because those days will come, you can fall back into to all you curated, the community that loves you as you are and when ready, encourages you to grow, and the voice of the still speaking God who is found in scripture and story and music. May it be a blessing to you on your journey.