A few minutes ago, we sang our Psalm of the Day to the tune of the Doxology. Psalm One Hundred is one of the Psalms that pretty much has to be sung. I mean, can you imagine reading this Psalm too seriously? Here I’ll give it a whirl; see how convincing this sounds…
“Make a joyful noise to the LORD all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness. (sigh)
Come into his presence with singing.”
If I stood here and read Psalm One Hundred like that, you wouldn’t believe me for a second, and I couldn’t blame you.
This song has something in common with onomatopoeia. Like a ding-donging bell, or a moooing cow Psalm One Hundred is performative speech; it is doing the thing and describing the thing at the same time. Psalm One Hundred is itself the joyful noise it tells us to make. Come into God’s presence with singing is the very thing we’re supposed to be singing.
Something I find interesting is this Psalm is all about praising God, but God is not the audience. Nowhere in it does the Psalmist address God directly. You might expect to hear something like, “O God, I will praise you with my whole being. You are good. Your steadfast love endures forever. How can I keep from singing…”
Instead, the Psalmist is more concerned about making a case to the people. The Psalmist is addressing the crowd with the message: “Hey all you people! You really should praise God, and if you’re not convinced, here’s why you should be…”
I wonder whether you find this compelling?
Here’s my take. If there’s a person out there who is not interested in praising God, then hearing these words sung at her, might not move her heart toward praise. To that person, the lyrics could sound like requirements. I mean, there are lots of instruction verbs in this song: make a joyful noise, worship the LORD, show up, sing, know the LORD, enter the gates, give thanks, bless… If you’re not feeling its spirit, the song could sound bossy and prescriptive.
If there’s somebody who already feels an inkling of praise in his soul, then he might hear this Psalm as a song of permission. You know that praise you’re feeling inside you, go on and let that become your song! You know God was singing when he was making you out of the dust, and some of that song got in your being, so of course, we cannot help but give that back to the universe.
It’s not that we’re required to praise God, it’s that we’re allowed to, and it could be that something in each of us needs to praise God.
There is creative tension between requiring and allowing, between giving directions and giving permission. You hear this tension in the Psalms. You know this tension if you’ve ever taught anything to anybody. It could be that someone who loves playing the oboe now once had to be required to practice, or someone who relishes a day off so she can spend it reading once had reading assigned to her at school.
The tension between requiring and allowing also shows up in the church, specifically when it comes to how our churches treat children. For generations, our churches have struggled to find the best ways to include and nurture children. Our churches got a lot of things right. If you remember your childhood Sunday School teacher with fondness, and I remember mine, then you know. If you remember learning “This Little Light of Mine” and knowing the love of God in this place, then you know, back in the day, churches got a lot of things right. But not everything.
One way in which churches like ours have failed children was by being too heavy-handed. There are adults who have left the Church because they have been scarred from being required to memorize long passages or from having their faith examined in front of all the church. For some children, coming to church was dreadful or frightening. It was not an event of joy; it was about dressing up, and sitting quietly except for the moments when you were made to sing whether you felt like it or not.
Now the instructional approach of long ago was not necessarily abusive. You might have had a childhood in a church that demanded a lot from you, and you might have loved it. But this approach was not helpful for some of our sisters and brothers. You can understand why some folks left the Church and won’t look back.
It really is possible for churches to care more about requirements than children, to worry more about kids getting out of control than to worry about whether children are experiencing the warmth of God’s love. It really is possible for churches to be too heavy-handed. And that’s not all.
Something that’s happened in recent years is that churches have been deliberately changing our approach, and I think, in some cases, we might have overcorrected. Nowadays, mainline churches run the risk of leading with the message that the Christian faith is about having fun, and feeling good about Jesus, and being nice.
So look, there’s no more memorizing, there are no difficult requirements. Just come, have pizza with your friends, and feel welcome here. And I appreciate the intention, but this approach can still let our children down. Now our churches might be too empty-handed.
Eight years ago, Kenda Creasy Dean published the groundbreaking book called Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. I have preached about it before, and I will again. What she discovered was that our children and teenagers are doing an excellent job of learning what the Church is teaching them. The problem is our mainline churches are accidentally teaching something she calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. That’s a scholarly way of saying: There is a God; and what God wants is for you to be nice. See kids, church isn’t too hard. You don’t have to worry about hell or catechism. Just be nice.
When it comes to caring for children, it really is possible for our churches to be too heavy-handed. It really is possible for our churches to be too empty-handed, to turn away children who are hungry for a vivid faith in Christ and offer them pizza instead.
The good news is, we have something better to offer our children. We have our own faith. And when we don’t, we have our own longing for faith. Imagine if we let our kids see this.
Seems to me, following Jesus is never an unwavering straight-line trajectory. There are seasons when our faith softens and goes quiet, and maybe goes missing. There are seasons when our faith drives us to make the hardest decision we’ve ever had to make. There are seasons when our faith is all we have to hold onto. So you can have the whole wide world, but give me Jesus.
There are things I believed as a twelve-year-old that would convince you that I was a bona fide Christian. Some of those beliefs I don’t hold any longer; some of them I’m just beginning to understand. Imagine if we let our kids in on this. If they heard us singing. If they saw the tears that run down our faces. Imagine if we allow Jesus to provoke our conscience, and change our minds, and open our hearts. You know the children are watching, they’re going to want in on this too.
The truth is we can’t require anyone to harbor a deep longing for Christ, but we can allow ourselves to notice the longing that’s already in our own hearts and trust it. We are allowed. If we can give our children the chance to see our own deep longing for Christ, what we’ll be teaching them is that their deep longing is allowed too.
One day Jesus was teaching and a crowd gathered. Some of the people came up to him because they wanted him to touch them, and bless them, and maybe heal them. Some of the people had their kids with them. So you can imagine how it started. It could have been one father kneeling before Jesus while balancing his toddler on his hip. When Jesus blessed the dad, his daughter said, “My turn!” So Jesus blessed the little girl, then somebody else’s baby. Then other parents saw this. Then the children saw this. Pretty soon our Lord and Savior was getting mobbed by little ones.
Several disciples exchanged worried glances. Somebody’s going to have to to step in and do something. See those disciples knew about blessing. They knew the same thing Barbara Brown Taylor observed all these years later: There’s no way to bless someone without realizing they beat you to it; no way to bless someone without getting their blessing all over you. That’s why I think blessing works like glitter.
Now look at what’s happening to Jesus! He is covered in baby goo, and snot, and glitter, and you can’t even tell who’s blessing whom anymore. You can understand why the disciples need to put a stop to this. “Come on, that’s enough!” they try telling the parents.
Then Jesus yells at them —right in front of the kids! Everybody got quiet; nobody was sure what to do.
I think it might have gone down like this. I think one of those disciples who just got yelled at took a long look at the scene —the gaggle of parents standing off to the side, the children crawling on the ground and climbing on Jesus. I think that disciple looked at all of this… then he laughed.
Then Jesus laughed, and then the kids, then their parents, then all the disciples, and all the crowd. Pretty soon everybody was covered in baby goo and glitter, and giggles and blessing. Nobody’s hands were too heavy or too empty. The whole thing was entirely out of control. And Jesus said, “ Yup. The kingdom of God is like this.”
All the people could do was make a joyful noise to the LORD, and hear their children’s Hallelujahs, and praise God from whom all blessings flow.